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Residents relate the personal significance of this election

POSTED: November 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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Regardless of their political affiliation, people who watched election coverage Tuesday night knew they were witnessing history.

When Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won enough Electoral College votes to become the first African-American president of the United States, the news sent reverberations throughout the nation and the world.

It resonated especially with black voters, who felt they were seeing the culmination of the civil rights movement.

"The primary thought that came to my mind was of my mother, who participated in protests and sit-ins in Georgia and South Carolina," said the Rev. Stephen Samuel, pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville.

"I was glad to see that her work had come to fruition. She was born in 1942, and her generation laid the foundation for where we are today."

Lula city councilman Mordecai Wilson, born in 1925, belongs to an even earlier generation, but he also worked toward racial equality. He was in Washington, D.C., in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech.

For Wilson, it was a bit surreal to watch Obama’s acceptance speech Tuesday night. "I really did not think this would happen in my lifetime," he said. "I thought it was great for everybody, but particularly for black people who have struggled against segregation over the years."

Like many viewers, Gainesville city councilwoman Myrtle Figueras was moved to tears by Obama’s speech, and by the magnitude of what he had accomplished.

"To me, he is living what Martin Luther King preached," she said. "He is being judged as an individual, not by the color of his skin. He showed that this is the only country in the world where you can be whatever you want to be, if you’re willing to work for it."

Figueras hopes that Obama’s victory will begin to chip away at the wall of racism that has divided Americans.

"I believe he will help us by unifying the nation," she said. "I was glad to see that he was able to get votes from all types of people. It wasn’t just the Electoral College, it was also the popular vote. He won all across America, and that made me feel good."

Wilson, too is hoping for unity. "I like it when Obama says, ‘There are no red states or blue states, only the United States,’" he said. "It’s a new day. We have got to work together and put egos aside."

Samuel said once Obama won the nomination of the Democratic Party, he believed the senator could win the general election. He thinks voters of all ethnicities were impressed by Obama’s intelligence and calm personality.

"He takes time to listen to different points of view before making a decision," Samuel said. "He can be both substantive and thoughtful. He constantly puts the mirror to America and to us as a people. He says, ‘This is what we can be.’ People grasp that message and hold onto it."

Faye Bush, president of the Newtown Florist Club, a civil rights group in Gainesville, said she has been avidly watching election coverage ever since Obama announced his candidacy almost two years ago.

But she never thought that he could break through the racial barrier and actually win. "I was so excited," she said. "I’m proud that I was able to live to see this."

Bush thinks Obama’s experience as a community organizer was what made the difference.

"I was so impressed at how he organized the young people into that (voter registration) movement," she said. "They’re going to be the future. Young people don’t see (skin) color like older people do."

Audrey Haynes, associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia, said Obama was able to succeed because of demographic shifts in recent years.

"Change doesn’t happen unless there’s already been change," she said. "Americans are a lot more integrated than they have ever been. I think this is a great day, not just for African Americans but for Caucasians who have never supported racial discrimination."

But Obama never made race an issue in the campaign. Instead, he laid out his plans for tackling the nation’s problems, such as the ailing economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an inadequate health care system.

"(Obama) ran such a great campaign, and when people hear him speak, it’s obvious that he’s a person who thinks and cares about the issues," said Haynes. "I think Americans have been waiting to be inspired, and they were inspired by Obama."

Daniel Franklin, a professor of political science at Georgia State University, said Obama’s acceptance speech was among the best he’s ever witnessed.

"I haven’t seen anything like that in American political rhetoric since Reagan’s ‘Tear down this wall’ speech or Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you,’" he said.

Earlier in the campaign, some of Obama’s opponents made fun of his eloquence, accusing him of being all talk and no substance.

But Franklin said being able to deliver a rousing speech is part of a president’s job description.

"Charisma is absolutely essential," he said. "It’s not just about style. A president has to inspire confidence, and Obama seems to be able to do that."

Franklin said he believes that this was a "regime-changing" election. "I mean not just a change in personnel but a new philosophy," he said. "It happens in cycles, when the old ideas just don’t work anymore. The last time this happened was in 1980, when the New Deal ran out of steam (and Reagan came into power)."

Franklin believes Obama won in part because of his biracial, multicultural heritage, which represents the new face of America.

"I have more Nguyens and Patels in my classes than Smiths," he said. "I have never seen my students respond to a political candidate the way they did to this one."

Franklin thinks the ability of voters to overcome their prejudices will send a message to other nations, encouraging them to embrace diversity.

"The election of Obama says, ‘Look, we’re post-racial. How about you?’" he said.

But Douglas Young, professor of political science at Gainesville State College, sees the election not so much as a referendum on race, but rather a reflection of dissatisfaction about the economy.

"I think what sunk (Republican candidate John) McCain was the economy," he said. "If there had not been a downturn, I think McCain would have been elected. But most Americans will give credit or blame to the president for the state of the economy, and McCain was seen as the de facto incumbent because his party controlled the White House."

Young said Obama "is a very skillful politician," but he thinks the Democrat benefited from more favorable media coverage.

"That helped him get elected, just as it did Kennedy," he said. "He was seen as the more attractive, exciting candidate."

Young said he is concerned about the direction in which Obama may take the country.

"I think with an overwhelmingly liberal Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, it will be much like the 1930s under FDR (Franklin Roosevelt) or the 1960s under Lyndon Johnson," he said. "I think we’re poised to see a major expansion in the size and scope of the federal government, with more taxation and more social welfare programs."

But while he disagrees with Obama’s governing philosophy, Young acknowledges the historic importance of electing the first black president.

"It’s another sign that we are the greatest nation on Earth," he said. "As Obama has said, his story couldn’t have happened in any other country in the world. The strength of America is that we take everyone as an individual."



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