Sitting in the humble gymnasium at Doolittle Community Center on Saturday morning, Agnes Marshall could hardly believe the blessing she’d received.
Had she really lived to see an African-American become a viable American presidential candidate?
After all, she said, she was from Ferriday, La., and had spent 57 years in Southern Nevada, 53 of them on D Street in the heart of predominantly African-American West Las Vegas. She had experienced institutional racism’s brutal cold. When she was young, black people dared not dream this big.
As echoes of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” roared in her ears during Saturday’s Democratic party caucus, the 76-year-old retired Riviera pantry worker was reminded of a time in the early 1950s when she worked dressing windows in Fremont Street shops. She had to pack her lunch. The counter at White Cross Drugs was off limits to black people.
“I couldn’t sit there,” Marshall said. “Even the people who played on the Strip had to get the food to go. They couldn’t sit at the counter, either.”
This proud great-grandmother, who spends her spare time with her children’s children, tending her garden and attending services at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church on D Street, is part of a generation of Americans who prayed a time would come when the political process was open to all people. Although Barack Obama has been widely credited with energizing young voters, I dare say his presence in the presidential race has done the hearts of older voters good.
Support them or not, Obama and Hillary Clinton make history every day as trailblazing candidates.
“It makes me thank God I’m alive to see it,” Marshall said.
The crowd roared on, and Clinton’s outnumbered supporters were heard from amid the pep rally atmosphere.
Nattily outfitted in a pith helmet and cane, Theron McNeil called himself an undecided voter. He, too, had a story from many years ago.
He was an 18-year-old kid who joined the Army fresh out of a Chester, Pa., high school in 1962. He was bused to the South, and the recruit caravan stopped in Richmond, Va., on the way to Fort Jackson, S.C. For miles, he rode surrounded by white soldiers, he recalled. “But as we started getting closer to the South, they started moving toward the front of the bus.”
McNeil was just 18. When the bus stopped in Richmond and McNeil tried to use the first restroom he saw, he was apprehended by two police officers. The bathroom was for whites only. Only a successful intervention by the bus driver prevented McNeil from being beaten by the cops.
“It’s something to actually live and see it,” McNeil, 63, said. “Because as a young man, I actually experienced all that racism.”
Lest anyone think he was voting based on color, he added, “I’d rather go with substance as opposed to popularity. I want the best person to be picked for the job.”
Man or woman.
“I remember when Hillary first started running,” he said. “I thought how far we were behind the rest of the world. There’s Golda Meir, and Miss (Margaret) Thatcher. Other countries have had female leaders for a long time, back when women in this country were still trying to go without bras.”
This is the story of Campaign ’08. It’s what brought Edward Brooks out to Saturday’s caucus: “that a woman or a black man can run for president of the United States and have a legitimate chance of winning it.”
At 63, Brooks’ eyes welled with emotion when he recalled seeing a young black man hanging by a rope from a tree in the town square back in Enid, Okla. He remembered, as the only black kid in his high school, being left out of the senior class trip because there was no place for him to stay.
As a football player at Emporia State in Kansas, during a road trip he experienced being banned from a Stillwater, Okla., restaurant. His coach pulled out the team in protest, and they wound up eating at the Oklahoma State cafeteria.
Brooks, too, remains undecided.
But he knows this is an amazing time in our nation’s history.
“I never did think I’d see this in my lifetime,” he said. “These two have a shot, a legitimate shot at it.”
The roar of the crowd at Doolittle grew deafening, and Edward Brooks wiped the tears from his eyes.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.