"A poor black woman in Alabama who could not set foot in a polling place in 1958 could pull a voting-machine lever for a black candidate in 1972." --Keyssar, The Right to Vote, 2000, pp. 256-57.
--And if she's still with us, she can push a button on a computer screen for a black candidate running for the highest office in 2008. Last Wednesday, taking the advice of authorities that Atlanta area residents should vote early to avoid expected long lines at the polling places November 4th, I drove to the local senior citizen's center to cast my ballot.
If those of us who voted early here thought that by doing so we could avoid lines, we were disappointed--I had to wait for an hour and a half. The line stretched outside the door, but it was one of those incredibly lovely Georgia autumn days with just the right amount of crispness in the air. One enterprising entrepreneur set up a small kiosk and sold hot dogs, chips, bottled water, and sodas; she found quite a few takers among those in line.
My boss had voted early one day prior, and based on her experience I knew to expect a wait, so of course I came prepared with a book to read in line--Eric Foner's Reconstruction (1988). As I looked around me, I realized that of the maybe two hundred or so voters in the queue, I was one of perhaps ten who was not African-American. And ironically enough, I had just gotten to the part in Foner's book on the efforts to extend the vote to people of color following the Civil War. On page 240, Foner mentions what may well be the worst local referendum result ever in the country's history:
"Hoping to forestall Congressional action, the District (of Columbia) in December 1865 held a referendum among white voters. The result: 35 in favor of black suffrage, 6,951 against."
We've come a long way from that.
Slowly I advanced in line, now actually entering the building, now turning the corner in the hall, now finally entering the room with the poll workers and the machines. When it came my turn, I walked to a machine and cast my ballot.
Immediately to my left, an elderly African-American man was voting; he needed assistance and it was given. I couldn't help overhearing that he was voting for Barack Obama. And although I pushed the button for Senator McCain, I must admit that should McCain lose tomorrow, it will please me to think that the old man who voted beside me will no doubt be happy for Obama's victory. If that senior citizen was born here in the South, he grew up and even entered adulthood in a society that often denied people of his race the most basic freedom of choosing leaders to run his town, state, and country. I wonder if in 1958 he could in his wildest dreams have imagined a black man running for President and getting tens of millions of votes.
It's been a long, hard road we've traveled in America, and there are no doubt struggles ahead. But I think election day is a good time for everybody to reflect on how far we've come towards the ideal of liberty and justice for all.