Historic Inauguration Evokes Memories of the Civil Rights Movement


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By Jamie Rogers/Media General News Service
Published: January 17, 2009

FLORENCE, S.C.—Days before the first black man takes the country’s highest office, 81-year-old Lake City resident T.R. Cooper, the son of sharecroppers in rural Williamsburg County, remembers that he and those in his age group never thought seriously about a black man being a U.S. president.

“As a young man, I never thought of it because I never had experience with anything that would allow me to believe in it,” he said. “There was just segregation when I was growing up.”

Cooper, who was an educator in Lake City for 35 years, said it wasn’t until he began teaching others that he learned anything is possible for blacks.

But even after that realization, the seemingly achievable things appeared harder to obtain for children enrolled in schools just before desegregation, he said.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Cooper taught in a rural two-room wooden school. It was common at this time for white schools to have the proper educational tools while the black schools did not, he said.

“We used the books that were handed down to us from the white schools,” Cooper said. “When I would go to get books, I wouldn’t get new books. I would get those that were handed down to us. White
schools had better supplies and, of course, that would make a difference.”

Despite that, Cooper said he senses that many of his students, a generation removed from his own, didn’t think the idea of a black president was so far fetched.

Many of them thought they would all go on to do great things in life, including holding high political offices, he said.

“The black students that graduated from Carver High School, when it was a high school, made well of themselves,” he said. “We had doctors, we had lawyers. Their thoughts were anything (was) possible ... I don’t think they were so cynical that they thought that would never happen.”

And young people today don’t even see race as an issue when it comes to a person’s abilities, Cooper said.

“They knew about (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s) dream of a man being judged by his character, not by his color,” he said. “I see a generation that’s going to come up with no color barriers. There could be another black president, if he has the qualities.

“I don’t think (color) matters to the younger generation now. It really doesn’t matter.”

Residents shared their thoughts on Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration with Morning News staff writers Jamie Rogers, Jamie Durant and Dwight Dana:

Lorine Thomas-Dendy, 71, of Florence said when she was a child growing up in the Pee Dee, integration hadn’t even begun. She recalls leaving the South and going north to find work.

When the civil rights movement began “I had just gone to New York after I came out of high school because there was no way we could get jobs here,” she said.

In New York, she said she saw black people working as bank tellers and store clerks — something she had never witnessed living in South Carolina during segregation.

* * *

For Thomas-Dendy, the inauguration of first black president of the United States is something she thought she would never live to see.

“It’s almost impossible to describe what it means to me,” she said. “We weren’t looking for a black leader just to lead us, but to lead the whole country”

Thomas-Dendy said having a black president gives her hope for young black people today’s.

“Sometimes I think they (understand the struggles we went through) and then again when I see how people are acting, I think that they are still confused,” she said. “My prayer is that they will see and understand that there is an answer to poverty and poor education.”

Thomas-Dendy said although she doesn’t have a ticket, she’s going to the inauguration Tuesday.

“I just want to be among the people there,” she said. “And then I can come back and say I went to the inauguration and I was a part of it.”

* * *

Charlene Lowery has been making people look at race in new ways since her years as a young adult during the civil rights movement in Florence.

Now, she uses her skills to make Pee Dee residents take notice of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn as the congressman’s Pee Dee director.

Lowery said she remembers a time when she marched in the streets of Florence to protest civil rights violations.

“I honestly thought that I would never be living to see a black man become the president of the United States,” she said. “I came up during the era when there were black and white bathrooms. When (my boyfriend, now husband) would take me to the movies, we were always separate. We have come a long ways, but we ultimately have a long ways to go.”

Lowery said she’s planning to attend the inauguration to again be a part of history in the making.

“President-elect Obama has made Martin Luther King’s dreams come true,” she said.

* * * 

State Rep. Terry Alexander of Florence said he was too young to remember much of the civil rights movement, but he does recall his days as a child during the early stages of integration in the Pee Dee.

Before integration, Alexander said, people of different racial backgrounds simply kept their distance from each other.

“Then, as time went on, more and more people realized we can be a better people than what we are,” he said. Alexander said communication was key in making integration work.

“It kind of helped to break down barriers when we started talking to each other and not at each other,” he said.

But for Alexander and others like him who remember the days when life for blacks and whites was exceedingly different and in no way equal, Obama’s inauguration marks a day of hope for what’s to come in America.

“This inauguration has been a long journey,” he said. “It is a continuation of our beginning, not just the beginning of black folks, but of human kind, whereby we realize that there is no one person or party that controls everything.”

Alexander said he thinks an Obama presidency marks a new beginning, but America’s struggle to combat racism is far from over.

“This country is beginning to live up to the creed that all men are created equal,” he said. “By no means does this mean that racism is going to cease. But in my thinking, it is going to soften the hearts of some whose hearts otherwise may not have been softened.”

* * *

Jerry Keeney, 65, a retired Darlington High School history teacher, said she feels good about Obama’s inauguration and wants to seem him succeed.

“When I looked at my students, I didn’t really see black and white,” she said. “We didn’t have a race problem in the classroom.

“I really wanted to see Mike Huckabee win the nomination, and then I voted for John McCain. But once Obama got it, I wanted him to succeed. I want him to do wonderful things.” Keeney isn’t sure about Obama’s stimulus package, unless he’s going to give true tax cuts to businesses that can create jobs.

“I don’t want to see us get a $500 check,” she said. “You look at that $200 billion that is supposed to be some type of tax cut for businesses, but it’s not. It’s just a check in the mail.

“I guess I’m more disappointed with Congress but, so far, Obama looks like he’s trying to be fair. I’m willing to give him a chance. I like the idea that he got Rick Warren to do the invocation.”

* * *

Perry Simon, owner of Simon’s Shoe Shop in Darlington, said he feels people are ready for a change.

“If the people weren’t ready, Obama would have never been put where he is now,” Simon said. “Obama is not just for my people, but for people all over America. All of those who voted for him know it’s time for a change.

“I believe God is in the process of the change because if he weren’t, things would not have happened like they happened. Sometimes man can’t stop it,” he said. “If God is willing for it to happen, it’s going to happen and that’s the way I look at it.

“I’m 81 and I’ve seen a lot and witnessed a lot here while I’ve been on the face of this earth. Whether race relations or what not, I’m glad to see that everybody’s in favor of a change. If something doesn’t change here in America, I don’t know what’s going to become of us before all of us hit rock bottom.”

“Yes, he wouldn’t have gotten in there without all races voting for him, right?” his wife, Fannie Simon, interjected. “But with the crisis he’s going into, America needs to pray for him to make the right decisions.”

* * *

Sherman Barno, 67, is assistant manager at Jordan Funeral Home in Darlington and an accomplished piano player.

“I feel very great about Obama going in,” he said. “It’s a change from where we came from as black people, anyway. I’m very proud of the situation.

“He’s got a rough road ahead, but I’m sure with the backing of the public and all the people, we’ll get through whatever crisis we’re going through.

“It’s going to take a lot of work but I feel like he’s going to be a very good president.”
* * *

Dr. Joseph Heyward is a retired vice president for student affairs at Francis Marion University and a pillar in Cumberland United Methodist Church in Florence.

“I’m praying that he does a good job,” Hewyard said. “He sure can’t do any worse than the person he’s taking over from. I think he’s going to be a good president and will lead us out of this mess we’re in now.”

* * *

Harriett J. Smith is retired but has been a member of the Florence County Voter Registration & Elections Commission for 30 years.

“I think he will do a wonderful job,” she said. “He’s a man led by God to do it. I’ve lived 81 years to see this. It’s a blessing and it’s high time for a change.”

* * *

Billy D. Williams, 69, is a retired interior decorator and has been a member of Florence City Council for 20 years.

“I was part of the Obama team in this area from day one,” Williams said. “I’m on my way to Washington because I have tickets with seats for the inauguration on Tuesday. It’s a pleasure to be able to go and witness something I thought I would never see in my lifetime: an African American becoming president of the United States of America.

“I’m delighted to be able to witness this historical event — not because of Obama’s blackness, but because it’s the right thing America needs to do,” he said. “He’s got his work cut out for him, but America is a country that always comes back. I think he will lead us out of this recession in two or three years and the whole world will change.”

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