As Election Day nears, St. Louisans reflect on its historic significance | St. Louis Public Radio

As Election Day nears, St. Louisans reflect on its historic significance

Oct 29, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 29, 2008 - Earl Cowens says if Barack Obama is elected, it will mean America has woken up.

If there is an ounce of bitterness in Earl Cowens' heart, he won't admit it. His country never was evil, he said. It was more that when it came to equal rights and equal opportunities for whites and blacks, things had gotten broken somewhere along the way -- "all messed up," he calls it --- and nobody was quite sure how to fix them.

"You see," he said on a crisp autumn day recently inside the Northside Community Center where he had come for lunch, "America was just set up in a different way. It wasn't set up the way it was supposed to be set up.

"I knew it wasn't right," said Cowens, who is black. "I knew that much. But it didn't make me mad. It was just a way of life."

Earl Cowens is 87 years old. He has been married to the same woman for 54 years. He spent 16 years of his life as a soldier in the U.S. Army, and he has spent his entire life -- through the Great Depression, two world wars and the civil rights struggles of the '60s -- waiting for his country to become what he always hoped it could be.

And on Nov. 4, "14 days from today," he will cast his ballot in what he sees as the biggest election of his lifetime.

"I sure do call it a big deal," he says of the possibility that Sen. Barack Obama will become America's first African-American president. "And if it happens, I will think that America finally has woke up.

"We've been sleeping," he said, "sleeping all these years."

The significance of the upcoming election is not lost on Cowens and his friends at Northside, and it is not lost on the scholars who have spent much of their lives immersed in American history.

"In some sense, (Obama's election) would be a fulfillment of many of the things that (Dr. Martin Luther King) was arguing for," said Minion K.C. Morrison, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "At least, that is the way it is being seen symbolically for many African Americans, as well as many of those who have worked over the years for social change of a variety of types in U.S. history."

Said Gwyneth Williams, professor of political science at Webster University: "This is potentially huge, when you take somebody who represents an entire segment of the population that was enslaved and which, numerically, is still a small minority."

John Baugh, a linguist, Margaret Bush Wilson professor in arts and sciences and director of African and African American Studies at Washington University, says the election of Obama would have repercussions far beyond this country's borders.

"This would be a big thing to just about anyone of African descent. It changes the world."

In a TV interview in August, just after the Democratic National Convention, former President Jimmy Carter said that if Obama were to be elected, it would be a transforming moment "for the end of racism, and prejudice and hatred between races in this country."

"That's quite a statement," remarked interviewer Jim Lehrer.

"I believe it's true," Carter said.

Inside the Northside Community Center on Maffitt Avenue on Wednesday, 88-year-old Lillie Johnson was just finishing her lunch.

She wore a large button showing Obama and St. Louis' Gateway Arch, just above a quotation from the Democratic candidate: "America, this is our time."

Like Cowens, Johnson remembers being relegated to the balconies of "white" movie theaters and remembers the restaurants throughout much of downtown and along Grand Avenue refusing to serve people of color.

As late as the early 1960s, she said, she and her husband were turned away from a local chili house after a white friend had invited them to dine with him.

"We all went home," she said, "and I cooked."

"It means a lot," she says of the upcoming election. "I hear a lot of people quoting from the Bible: The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

"If he is elected, I just hope he makes a good president."

Too Black or Too White or Too Black/Too White?

Although Obama's campaign repeatedly has tried to marginalize race as an issue in the contest, there is no question that it has been front and center from his earliest decision to test the presidential waters.

"Obama's detractors did all they could to spread disinformation, some of which was racial in nature, but much of which was intended to stress that he is 'different,' without racial reference," said Baugh. "Actually, I think that Bill Clinton's comparison (in South Carolina) between Jesse Jackson and Sen. Obama was the tipping point for many former African American Hillary supporters who felt that President Clinton played the 'race card.'" 

From the first days, some argued that many whites simply could not bring themselves to vote for a black man for the nation's highest office.

At the same time, though, others argued that Obama's mixed-race parentage, his education and his upper middle-class lifestyle somehow made him seem more white than black.

A piece in TIME Magazine in February 2007 even asked the question: "Is Obama black enough?"

The publication asked the question whether Obama's background -- as opposed to civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton -- could win over African-American voters.

His own vice presential nominee, Sen. Joseph Biden, made note of the difference when he called Obama the "first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy."

As the election draws closer, it appears that the question of whether Obama is black enough has largely been answered, as he has drawn exceptional poll support among African-Americans.

At the same time, Obama also has been picking up many white voters -- and may be poised to bring some onetime red states into the blue column.

Baugh with Washington University says that it appears that Obama's position as an atypical black has softened fears among white voters. Because is "so comfortable" in a white world, Baugh says, may be why he is so "clearly capable of putting so many whites at ease."

Had he been dragging the weight of a "black agenda" candidate like Jackson, it likely would have proven much more difficult for him. "The Obama campaign has taken great care to be independent of the Sharpton and Jackson contingents. Clearly, this was intended to suggest that they did not show African American racial favoritism, which is frequently associated with Revs. Jackson and Sharpton. They are also ministers, and their leadership from the pulpit differs greatly from Obama's Kennedy-esque legacy as a Harvard law grad. I think that is a component as well."

What an Obama presidency might mean

While hopes may be high, Morrison, with the University of Missouri-Columbia, said that even if Obama is elected, it will not end discrimination overnight.

"There are a significant number of issues related to disparity that no single individual can resolve," he said. "It takes people working in the trenches."

But, he said, it could provide a real signal that the United States has arrived "in a new place in race relations. And there is much hope invested in that."

He said he has heard from colleagues in Africa, South America and elsewhere that such an event would make a significant contribution to others struggling for racial equality.

If Obama is elected, Morrison said, he only hopes he will serve well.

What, he was asked, would happen if he fails?

"I don't know the answer," he said. "The problems loom so large: There are major wars, an incredible economic situation that has become global . . .

"The challenges are going to be so large for whoever occupies this position. There is great opportunity for failure and, if you get lucky, spectacular opportunity for success."

Williams with Webster University said she is concerned that an Obama presidency might be viewed by some as an excuse for "some whites to feel off the hook" when it comes to the issue of racism in America.

"See," she says they could say, "this proves there is no racism, no discrimination. We have a black president."

But, she said, "that would not be accurate at all. There will continue to be an enormous amount of personal racism in the U.S., as well as structural racism, institutional racism.

"But some whites may think that any blacks who do not succeed have only themselves to blame."

She said people should be cautious about comparing an Obama election to civil rights legislation or court decisions involving school desegregation. "Those," she said, "were specific changes in the law and specific changes in the stance of the government.

"This is a symbolic change, but that's not to say it's not very important. Symbolism is extremely important. It can have an enormous impact on people's attitudes and beliefs."

She said that she looked at Sen. Hillary Clinton's run for the presidency differently from most men she knows and feels that many blacks feel the same connection to Obama's candidacy. "As a white male, you really can't imagine what it's like never to see people who look like you in power. You may not think that is important, but that's because you have never felt that."

Baugh said that growing up black in California's San Fernando Valley showed him both the worst, and the best, elements of race relations.

Some young white people, he said, openly shouted racial epithets at him. But there were times when other whites --- children he did not even know --- came to his defense.

Baugh said that while Obama's election would break the white man's long hold on America's highest office, Obama is in fact biracial and "does not trace his ancestry to anyone who has historically been enslaved in this country."

Because of that, Baugh sees his election "both earth-shattering and inconsequential at the same time." His mixed parentage, Baugh said, unquestionably has made him more appealing to some voters.

He said the best historical comparison to Obama's candidacy is the candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960. There was a feeling, he said, that America simply was not prepared to elect its first Catholic president.

"At the time, that was perceived as a seemingly insurmountable barrier," he said.

Asked whether the election of Obama would change the U.S. overnight, Baugh said "maybe the change has already happened and we just haven't realized it yet.

"That could be an affirmation that we really are a different place."

Cowens, who was among those arrested during demonstrations over minority hiring practices at Jefferson Bank in 1963, said he never imagined -- in his wildest dreams -- he would live to see a black man elected president.

"But," he said, "I always figured we should be getting a little more than we were getting. You see, our people had fought in World War I and, after fighting in World War I, we weren't respected. And then we fought in World War II, and we weren't respected again. And so, we figured we should be respected some time.

"There never was no sense in getting mad at the way things were," he said. "America was never really democratic, not really. But I think it's working up to being democratic. It's working up to all people being treated right.