January 27, 2008 in Nation/World

Black voters dare to dream about Obama

James Rainey Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

Singer Usher Raymond, left, and actress Kerry Washington stand with Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., at a rally Tuesday at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C.Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

ORANGEBURG, S.C. – It’s a dangerous thing to get ahead of yourself, to hope that times have changed. People around this small Southern town say they know too well what it means to guess at history before it’s happened.

But after voting for Sen. Barack Obama on a chilly winter day here Saturday, in a town with a history of racial unrest, many blacks could not help but let themselves feel they were taking part in something larger.

They saw their votes helping push a young black man to victory in the South Carolina presidential primary, one that felt different than Jesse Jackson’s win in the Democratic primary here 20 years ago. This felt like something that could become much bigger.

On Saturday, black schoolteachers talked about how an Obama in the White House would motivate students who complain that the deck is stacked against them.

Parents hoped it would help them keep distracted sons on the straight and narrow.

One woman said she felt it might even push those Confederate flags, occasional dots on the piney landscape, a little farther into the shadows.

Earthalee Brown, 85, cast her ballot around noon inside the gymnasium at South Carolina State University, then allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to see Obama taking the oath of office next January beneath the Capitol dome.

“It’s going to feel like God is still on the throne,” said Brown, who grew up in segregated Orangeburg County. As she said it, Brown turned her palms skyward and laughed from deep down in her belly.

Travis Chandler, a senior at the historically black college, was the 15th consecutive person to leave the polls around midday reporting a vote for the senator from Illinois. “I never thought an African-American would have a chance to win an election on this level,” Chandler said. “I think history could be made. And I want to do my part.”

The chance at progress resonated deeply here, in part, because of Orangeburg’s past. This Feb. 8, it will be 40 years since three black college students were killed by state troopers (another 27 were wounded) as they protested segregation at a whites-only bowling alley.

Only 15 years ago, South Carolina elected its first black congressman in nearly 100 years. Rep. James E. Clyburn had emerged as a black leader during a sit-in at the segregated counter of the Orangeburg Rexall Drug Store.

That history could not be ignored Saturday at the South Carolina State gymnasium, which is named for the three teenagers who died that day in 1968 in what has come to be known as “The Orangeburg Massacre.” Black and white photos of Henry R. Smith, Samuel Hammond Jr. and Delano B. Middleton hung directly over five blue electronic voting booths.

Willie Utsey, 60, grew up in the area and knew some of those who were shot. “It was hard. It was very hard,” he said.

The semi-retired truck driver (another Obama voter) and others took pains to explain that Obama was more than simply their color. They cited his election to the Senate and his intelligence and his apparent ability to compromise with those who hold different views.

“You don’t get in because of the color of your skin. It’s the person that you are,” George Favors said after casting his Obama ballot. “That’s what Martin Luther King said.”

Voters in the ward favored Obama 6 to 1 over his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Most of the Obama voters expressed no animosity for Clinton. “If she can win, that would be big too,” Chandler said, adding that a first woman president would represent another breakthrough.

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