Courting the South's Black Vote

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Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME

Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigns in Manning, South Carolina.

Edith Childs has never liked her community's silent segregation. Greenwood, a racially mixed town of 30,000 people tucked amid the rolling cow pastures of western South Carolina, has admittedly come a long way since the Jim Crow era Childs grew up in. But Greenwood still has two American Legion posts — one favored by white veterans and one by blacks — and its downtown war memorial still lists the local World War I and II dead under the headings of "white" or "colored." Much of the town's social life, says Childs, 59, is similarly divided. "Black and white just don't do enough together here," she laments.

Which is a big reason why Childs, a black Greenwood County councilwoman, says she is so ardently supporting Barack Obama in South Carolina's Democratic primary on January 26, a contest that is often heavily influenced by the black vote — which makes up about half of the state's registered Democrats. When she met the Illinois Senator last spring at a black political caucus, "there was something about him I'd not seen in any politician, ever. Not just his enthusiasm, or that he was so sincere. I just saw a kind of hope that all people can relate to, not just black people. I saw in him the want for all people to come together."

So when Obama visited Greenwood last June — keeping a promise he'd made to a local state Senator whose endorsement he wanted — Childs, one of the town's more passionate civic organizers, provided him with more than adoration. Toward the end of his meeting with some 40 local Democratic leaders in a room inside Greenwood's civic center, Childs stood up in one of her trademark hats and ignited the mixed but relatively sparse crowd with a thundering chant and response she learned as an NAACP activist in the 1970s: "Fired up! Ready to go!" And that has been Obama's campaign rally cry ever since.

But just as important, Childs and Greenwood may also have helped Obama connect more genuinely with the kind of Southern rural black voter whose support he'll need through the primary odyssey — but who represents a different challenge than the urban, Northern black electorate he's more familiar with. "For him to have worked among poverty as much as he has in Illinois, he would have to know what black folks have gone through," Childs says. But during his visit, she adds, "something went on in that room that had to do with him coming to a small town and hearing those five words and knowing what people like us here can do, no matter what our problems. I think seeing our experience had an impact on him."

Still, it's not as if Obama can now take Greenwood for granted. Both white and black Democrats were put off by the fact that the Obama campaign invited only 40 people to the June event, so much so that some won't support him. Robert Tinsley, 54, a white criminal defense lawyer who was at the meeting and was a member of Greenwood High School's first integrated graduating class in 1971, says he's leaning toward Obama, largely because of his prescient stand against the Iraq war. But like a lot of people in town, including some African-Americans, he's still considering Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. "It's going to come down to who works the hardest in this state in the next 10 days."

The Rev. Fred Armfield, pastor of the Little Zion AME Church in Greenwood, is backing Clinton — for her experience and what he says her husband, former President Bill Clinton, did for the black community — but hopes the expected high black turnout on January 26 doesn't drop once the Hillary-Obama contest is over. "We can't let the African-American vote become like a hot toddy," he says. "Hot today and cold tomorrow."

Childs — who often brings tailgate-style dinners to the young volunteers working in Obama's regional campaign headquarters in Greenwood — insists that Obama's summer visit is evidence that he'll be that hardest-working candidate. "A lot of black folk used to look at the Senator and say, 'We're not sure just what he is,' like they didn't know where to place him. But after Iowa they know he's electable — and they've never experienced that with a black [presidential] candidate, so it's changed the whole mind-set in South Carolina. I think he's going to win here in a landslide as a result."

Childs agrees that one of the reasons the biracial Obama has been able to connect with black voters, despite the reservations of the traditional black leadership, is that black voters are more independent-minded today. For example, the black church, like the Baptist congregation she attends, is no longer the election arbiter it used to be for African-Americans — the one Sunday stop every presidential candidate once had to make in the black community. A former nurse, Childs says she's especially attracted to Obama's health care reform platform and its emphasis on primary care. As a retired private detective, she also believes he can curb the nation's alarming rise in black-on-black crime and improve education for rural as well as urban black youths, whose dropout rate she complains current federal education policy has done too little to address.

As for the argument that the Clintons hold enormous loyalty among black voters, Childs argues that before Obama, "black voters really had no other option" besides the Clintons. "Now we have another option."

Childs, who is confident Obama will visit Greenwood again before the primary, may well be borne out by new national polls showing that black voters now prefer Obama to Hillary by an almost 2-to-1 ratio. But she insists that his popularity has much to do with the prospect that he can muster racial bridges as well as racial pride. "The man is a black candidate, but he's a candidate who knows a lot about people in general, and that's what makes him different," says Childs, gesturing inside her county council office beneath an orange, broad-brimmed hat with fur trim.

That facet of the Obama phenomenon, she adds, has moved her to build her own racial bridges in Greenwood. This coming Monday, for the local observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, she's made sure that the fully integrated show choir from nearby Emerald High School is a featured attraction — ensuring both white and black families will attend. "If nothing else," she says, "Obama has reminded us that we've got a lot to do in Greenwood in that area still."