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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louisans have many reasons to go to D.C.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2009 - From the time she witnessed John F. Kennedy take the oath on a cold January day in 1961, St. Louis attorney Frankie Freeman has been a fixture at many Democratic presidential inaugurals.

Freeman still has warm memories of that event, from the red gown she wore to the ball, to the time she spent with singer Lena Horne and others during the visit.

It’s no surprise that even at age 92, when her gait is slower than usual, Freeman will be in Washington on Tuesday when another young and charismatic politician, Barack Obama, is sworn in.

St. Louis area residents offer varied reasons they must get to the nation’s capital to witness the final journey of Obama’s remarkable trip from that of Illinois’ junior senator to president of the United States.

To Freeman, a former member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, this inaugural is a special moment, marking the ultimate promise of the Voting Rights Act, the law that gradually unleashed the political power of disenfranchised blacks across the South.

To Ruby Sain, whose life has been influenced by R&B music instead of politics, attending Obama’s inaugural is a necessity because his campaign has been like an unexpected fresh melody to her ears, a harmonious blend of voice and message that grabbed her like a song so powerful it led her to take more than a passing interest in politics for the first time in her life.

To poet Eugene Redmond and school administrator Homer Simmons, Obama’s rise is a tribute to the tenacity of black ancestors to push and achieve against overwhelming odds, dating back to the days of slavery.

Brian Wahby

And to city Democratic Party leader Brian Wahby, Obama’s victory is a lot bigger than all of these individual experiences, a moment in which Americans can be proud to have made the democratic process work for all people.

Wahby notes that St. Louis gave Obama a huge voter turnout in the election, and that Wahby felt compelled to attend the inauguration for that reason.

“It’s a sense of closure. My second reason for going is that I’ve been an Obama supporter for a long time. Two years ago, I sat in his office, had a talk with him, have tried to get people to support him, and I worked in three states for him.” Wahby says the inauguration comes at an important time when people are uncertain about the future. For America’s middle class, he says “things are a lot tougher now than they were six weeks ago. With Obama, we will see economic policies that will jumpstart this economy.”

He calls Obama’s inauguration “an American story, a collective story of the country.”

Homer Simmons

Obama’s popularity is far from cresting. Just as an unexpected 100,000 showed up to see him during his campaign stop at the Gateway Arch last fall, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, might turn up in the capital for his swearing-in on Tuesday.

St. Louisans headed for that event were reminded that the crowd is expected to be at least four times as large as the 250,000 people at the March on Washington 45 years ago. That probably means visitors won’t get a close-up view of the swearing-in.

“I’m not sure what I’ll see,” says Simmons, arts supervisor in East St. Louis School District 189. “But I wanted to be in the area as a witness to this event.

"I was a teen when Martin Luther King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.

“I’ve never been to an event close to that. I am inspired by my ancestors, who fought for my rights, telling me to go, be there, and that’s why I am going.”

Ruby Sain

And what if the weather is colder Tuesday than it was during the inauguration of Kennedy? When asked her age, Sain would only say that she was older than 62 and added that the possibility of finger-numbing cold weather in Washington didn’t bother her.

“You’d be surprised about how many people have asked me that question about the weather. You dress for the occasion. That’s what I tell people, and that’s what I intend to do in Washington.”

She sat in a living room filled with photos and flowers, all memories of the rich and varied musical life of her late husband, Oliver Sain. She’s among St. Louis area residents who departed for Washington on buses around midnight Sunday.

At the inaugural, she says, people will be reminded of Obama’s gift, his message and cadence that have the same effect as good music, taking people’s minds off their worries, pushing problems like unemployment and war to the background and giving them a positive outlook.

“Before Obama, I was basically involved in music related to my husband, like organizing the Soul Reunion concerts,” she says. “But after listening to Obama, I liked what I heard. I became a supporter, and I told myself that I had to be there for the inauguration.”

Eugene Redmond

Poet Redmond and others also mention Obama’s cadence, first introduced to many through the “Yes We Can” music video by will.i.am.

Redmond attributes his own interest in the inauguration to the “archers and the marchers” in black history, from the days of slavery to the Civil Rights movement.

“These groups marched long and set their marks, their standards, so high that the phenomenon of an Obama had to come into being,” Redmond says.

“This event is the culmination of all of the marches, the escaping, the ducking and dodging by black people in history. To older people like myself, this is it as close to heaven as you can get. But to others, it’s is not the final piece, but a piece toward the summit of unfilled promises.”

Like many other people, Redmond is collecting plenty of political paraphernalia from Obama’s campaign – T-shirts, jewelry, fans, magazines, hoodies, pins and earrings – some of which will probably become part of an exhibit that Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville is assembling in Redmond’s honor.

He retired last year as a professor at SIU-E.

Edna Patterson-petty’s Quilt

One of the most powerful messages on display during the inaugural weekend was sent by a person who has decided to watch the events on television at home in East St. Louis.

That person is Edna Patterson-Petty.

On Nov. 14, she got a call, asking if she’d like to be one of 44 quilters submitting an original work to be displayed in Washington this week as part of Obama’s election. Her work is well known and has been featured in several books. 

She had less than 30 days to do the job, and she said she finished hers, titled “The Road to Redemption,” in 2 ½ weeks.

The oldest of 11 children, Patterson-Petty didn’t start college until she was 34 and eventually earned two masters degrees in art.

She remembers being a child who kept to herself and regarded art as a “constant form of expression.”

Like some blacks, she sounds almost apologetic in claiming the inauguration as a special moment for African Americans.

She says, “I know Obama was elected to serve all the people, but I also think this is a special thing for African Americans. The redemption is about making things right in a lot of ways because we have not been truly included.”

Freeman’s Views

Freeman, the civil rights attorney, views Obama’s victory less as a happy political accident than a cause-effect event of history. She points to the inestimable value of the Voting Rights Act to extend more political power to minorities and the way the Civil Rights Commission contributed to passage of the law through hearings that pricked the nation’s conscience.

She recalls the time the commission held about 10 days of hearings in Mississippi and found no black registered voters in Mississippi counties where blacks made up 70 percent of the population.

The commission found a way to uncover through indirection the evils of segregation  when, through polite questions, it revealed that a Mississippi official was ignorant of segments of the Constitution that he required blacks to interpret as a condition for being allowed to vote. This quiet scene was as touching as any from Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and became a turning point of the well publicized commission hearings. They helped to persuade Congress to pass the Voting Rights law, causing the rolls of elected officials to swell across the South and inspiring more political activity among blacks in the North as well.

To Freeman, that’s reason enough to attend this inaugural. To Wahby, the St. Louis Democratic Central Committee chair, another reason is the hope this election has given to race relations.

“This election” he says, “shows that we’re much better now than we were 30 years ago.”

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