The Reasons Vary
Winston-Salem Journal Photo by David Rolfe
Mia and Cecil Leftwich want their children (from left) Austin, Cecil Jr., Elizabeth and Meredith to see history made.
By Michael Hewlett/Media General News Service
Published: January 18, 2009
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—When Mia Leftwich was in elementary school, she saw a yellow glow reflecting off the lake near her home in Cherryville.
She asked her mother what it was. Her mother told her that the Ku Klux Klan was meeting and it was burning a cross, a known symbol of racial hatred.
It was just one of the many painful experiences she had as a black girl growing up in the South.
Now 42, Leftwich hopes that her four children—11-year-old Elizabeth, and 6-year-old triplets, Cecil, Meredith and Austin—will have different memories, those of a more tolerant, less racially divided country.
That’s why she and her husband, Cecil Leftwich, are taking their children to Washington to see Barack Obama inaugurated as the country’s first black president.
She wants her children to see history being made.
“They won’t have to read it in a book,” Mia Leftwich said. “They will know where they were.”
On Tuesday, the Leftwiches will join millions of people in Washington for the inauguration. Officials are expecting at least 2 million people at the National Mall, the most for any inauguration in history. In 1965, about 1.2 million people attended President Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration.
The excitement is palpable. It’s in the T-shirts being sold, the high demand for one of the 240,000 tickets available through congressional offices, and in the inauguration balls being thrown in Winston-Salem and around the country for those who can’t make it to Washington.
Reasons for the excitement vary.
Some are proud of the fact that Obama will be the first black man to occupy the White House. Others are excited about the change that Obama promised throughout his campaign.
“I’m feeling the same thing Obama asked us to feel during the campaign,” said Emily Wilson, who volunteered for the Obama campaign. “I’m feeling hopeful, and I’m very optimistic.”
Wilson describes herself as a white Southerner who has been involved in improving race relations for most of her adult life.
She remembers the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of during the March on Washington in 1963—the dream about judging people on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Obama, for her, has the intelligence and temperament to be the president.
“People are taking note that America has this young, smart president … that he is an African-American,” she said. “That will do a lot for us to regain our moral place in the world.”
Wilson said she initially supported New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, but it wasn’t hard for her to switch her support to Obama after Clinton lost in some of the primaries.
“I think Obama is so talented,” she said. “The challenge is to live up to the promise. I’m almost 70 years old, and it’s just so grand to see all this unfold.”
For Pam Kahl, the inauguration is, in a way, coming full circle.
Forty-five years ago, Kahl, who is white, was at the March on Washington, listening to King talk about his dream.
She will be there again to see Obama become the 44th president.
During the March on Washington in 1963, Kahl said, there was jubilation because of everybody coming together.
But she said that things were different back then, more dangerous. Black people could lose their lives for exercising their right to vote, she said.
“People can’t realize how hard it was to vote in the South,” she said. “I don’t think they fathom that. It was very real back then.”
And Obama’s election is a reflection of how far the country has come in terms of race relations, she said.
“I think there’s racism, but now there’s also opportunity,” Kahl said. “It’s just amazing, the changes.”
But some things haven’t changed.
Clay Pittman, a Winston-Salem native in his first year at N.C. State University, volunteered for the Obama campaign and remembers the racist graffiti that was spray-painted in a tunnel on campus soon after the election.
“I was outraged about it,” said Pittman, who is white. “It was a pretty huge response from the students against what happened.”
But he remains optimistic about Obama’s election and has plans to go to Washington for the inauguration.
“I mean, coming into this election, I really never expected this to happen—maybe not ever, but not this soon,” he said. “Inauguration day is going to be one of the most historic days in this country’s history.”
Obama’s inauguration will be historic because it is the culmination of everything that King and other civil-rights activists fought for, said Anthony Parent, a history professor at Wake Forest University.
“We have never come to terms with race in this country,” he said. Obama’s election helps change that, Parent said. “It’s not going to solve everything,” he said. “It may not solve much of anything.”
Still, his election has the potential to change the way that people view black people—particularly black men, he said.
“All of a sudden, a lot of those stereotypes are just shattered,” he said.
His two sons were more ready than he to believe that Obama could be elected president, Parent said. They went to desegregated schools and they didn’t grow up with the brutality of Jim Crow segregation.
Parent had grown up during a time when everything was a struggle.
His sons didn’t have that struggle.
“It’s not as strange to them to see a black in a position of authority,” he said.
Albert Porter’s hands dance on the table when he thinks about going to the inauguration. A longtime political activist, he was a delegate at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver. He was also at the Democratic Convention in 2004 when Obama emerged onto the national scene. And he was a freshman at N.C. A&T State University when civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson was class president.
Now 65, Porter is eager to go to the inauguration. He already has his ticket.
“To go through all that stuff and have a black president is mind-boggling,” he said.
Cecil Leftwich doesn’t think that his job of explaining race to his daughter will get any easier with Obama as president.
“When push comes to shove, he’s still an African-American man,” he said.
Mia Leftwich still has a hard time believing that Obama is going to be the president. It was her children who dragged their parents back into being the political junkies they were when they first got married.
She voted early because her 6-year-old son, Cecil, kept asking her if she had voted.
On Tuesday, she wants her children to see a black man be sworn in to the highest office in the country.
She wants them to know that they can be whatever they want to be—and to be able to point to Obama as proof.
And she wants to be there for herself, as well.
“This is the first step in the civil-rights movement that I’ve been able to participate in,” she said.