'Every day I pray for him . . . I am so thankful I'm still here to see this'

Wed, Nov 5, 2008, 00:00

Many African-Americans who have campaigned for Obama lived through some of the worst eras of racism, writes Keith Alexanderfrom Washington

ONCE OR twice a week for the past month or so, Ruth Worthy (91) has been going door to door in her Washington neighbourhood campaigning for Barack Obama. She has made the trek in her wheelchair or resting on the arm of her nurse.

"Dear, are you registered?" she would ask.

Worthy belongs to a generation of African-Americans who have journeyed from some of the rawest and most brutal eras of racism to the present, when they find themselves relishing the idea of a black man possibly becoming president.

For many blacks aged 90 and older, today will be one of the most historic events of their long lives. They lived through the apartheid of the Jim Crow laws in the south, the Depression, world wars, the horrors of lynchings and the 1955 murder of teenager Emmett Till, and the promise of the civil rights movement. Now, they're watching Obama lead in the national presidential polls.

Be they women of relative privilege, such as Worthy, or those of working-class roots, many share the same awe at how far the world can come in a lifetime.

"I would speak to them in the courtyard or on the steps, wherever I would see them," Worthy said of those she met during her door-knocking.

She's lived in the District of Columbia for almost 70 years but grew up in a middle-class Boston home, born to a black doctor and his wife, the first African- American to work at the local US post office.

When she finished her undergraduate degree at Bridgewater College in Massachusetts, Worthy took a train to Marion, Alabama, in the late 1930s to teach US history for $80 a month at the Lincoln Normal School, in one of the congregational schools for Negro children in the south. That first year, she taught those fortunate enough to attend school, including a quiet B-average student, Coretta Scott, who would later marry Martin Luther King.

Like other black people in Alabama, Worthy was supposed to ride in the back of the bus. Because of her fair complexion, white passengers didn't seem to notice when she took a seat next to them in the front of the bus. Some of the other black passengers did notice, she recalled, and would only smile, offer her a wink or, later, earnestly whisper to her to be careful.

"Yes, dear, I guess I was a little defiant," she says with a chuckle.

Arthur Greene (91) uses a wheelchair and rarely leaves his Arlington, Virginia, home except for church on Sundays and doctor's appointments. But he wasn't going to miss his chance to vote.

About a month ago, when Meals on Wheels brought Greene his meal, they also dropped off an absentee ballot. Greene remembers growing up in Jim Crow Virginia, looking for restaurants that didn't display "white only" signs or being forced to ride in the back of the trolleys between Arlington and Washington.

"I never thought it would happen in my lifetime," he said of Obama's campaign. "I think if I can see this and if it happens, I'll thank my lucky stars and my God for letting me live so long to be able to see the advancements of my people."

Minnie Small (92) remembers choosing her fights carefully, too.

She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her daughter and granddaughter, having moved four years ago from the Bronx, New York.

At 20, she had travelled there from Charlotte, North Carolina, in the hope of escaping the ugliness of southern racism. New York wasn't Charlotte, but it wasn't the promised land either.

During the 1950s, Small was a housewife and mother whose husband, Oliver, worked as an insurance salesman for United Mutual Life in New York. Small and her family moved from Manhattan to the Bronx, with hopes of enrolling their four children in better Catholic schools.

Raised Methodist, she converted to Catholicism. But she still had to struggle with the priests and nuns at Our Lady of Grace schools to enrol her children. "They didn't want blacks there," she said.

Barely 5ft, she prides herself on being a tough New Yorker. But when Small talks about voting, tears fall down her face.

Her parents, husband and four brothers and sisters didn't live long enough to see this possibility, and Small is so grateful that she did.

"Every day I pray for him and his family," she said of Obama. "I am so thankful I'm still here to see this."

When she and one of her youngest great-grandchildren, Kailah, watch Obama on television, a refrain that has become common among black parents comes to mind. "I always told my children they could grow up to be whatever they want," Small said. "That's what you do as a parent. But now, that seems to be really true."

Ruth Worthy has lived her life believing in the value of those struggles.

She kept in touch with her former student, Coretta Scott, and her husband, Martin Luther King, and became a good friend of the couple. She moved to Washington in 1941 and taught at several schools, associating with such historic black figures as Carter G Woodson, James Weldon Johnson and John Hope Franklin.

No matter the election outcome, she said, she's proud of Obama's journey.

"He's been able to reach where he is in part due to what many of us have fought for, to what so many have died hoping to see. So I feel some pride in him. Yes, I think I do," she said. - ( LA Times Washington Post service)