History, of course, will record Nov. 4, 2008, as a watershed moment in the United States. But if you happened to be riding in a particular van to and from Nixa, Mo., on the next-to-the-last weekend in October, you would have gotten a sneak preview of what Barack Obama’s election could mean for Arkansas race relations.
As the white and black Sheree´ Williamses of the state begin to step forward into positions of power, Arkansans may not have to endure much longer the spectacle of middle-aged whites and blacks at school board meetings armed with antennae as big as satellite dishes scouring the room for a racial meaning to whatever topic is at hand.
It is not necessarily the way people want to conduct the people’s business, but for those of us over a certain age, this instinct to see life through a racial lens comes with the territory. Arguably, given our history, it could not be otherwise. White supremacy has defined the state’s politics since slavery. Through every era many of us have lugged the baggage of race, but we seem loath to put it down.
As our 30-year-old “team leader,” Williams’ volunteer job in the Arkansas Obama campaign that Saturday morning was to transport to Nixa volunteers who had agreed to canvass in Missouri, a “battleground” state, and then deliver us back to the North Little Rock headquarters Sunday night. Seated up front with Williams was a black female student at Philander Smith. In the back were four white males, three of us over 40, two of us in our 60s. Though the scenario was hardly “Driving Mr. Daisy,” the son of Temple and Jake Stockley, who were members of the 1948 openly white supremacist “Dixiecrat” Party, right away felt comfortable enough with his team leader to share this information about his parents. For her part, Williams would eventually tell me enough of her life history to help me understand the path she has taken to becoming a dedicated supporter of Barack Obama.
Not surprisingly, both her grandmothers had been domestics for whites in Little Rock. Her mother, Valerie Peterson, who graduated from Central in 1974, had endured harassment from whites but had succeeded in becoming the first black High Stepper at Central. In 1974, Williams’ mother, who became an LPN, married Dowayne Peterson Sr., who had grown up in extreme poverty in east Little Rock.
Williams was in the fifth grade when the family moved from a mixed neighborhood off Barrow Road to a house on Pleasant Forest, in a virtually all-white neighborhood. Williams said that they were moving “to better schools and a better area.” She credits her parents for teaching her to not “act white” but neither to “act black.” She was simply to be herself. As a child, Williams attended Romine and Fulbright elementary and middle schools. For two years the family lived in Kentucky and then returned to Little Rock.
Whatever problems ail the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission at the moment — and there appear to be many — Williams gives it and state Sen. Tracy Steele, former director of the commission, high marks at a critical time in her life. The 1990s are remembered as a time of violence, gangs, and drugs in Pulaski County. On March 5, 1995, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette began a three-part series that documented, among other statistics, that “about one of every 11 teen-agers in Pulaski County belongs to a gang. … The ratio in public schools could be closer to one in eight.”
Williams was on a different path. As a 14-year-old, she was selected to become a “junior” MLK commissioner. With other black youngsters, she was taught the ABCs of political leadership. Much of it was about how to present herself in public. Junior commissioners were given lessons in etiquette and grooming, but they also were exposed to the politicians and issues of the day. She was introduced to leaders as different as Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Huckabee.
Being a junior commissioner also meant learning to give back to the community, especially the economically disadvantaged. Junior commissioners participated in service projects as elementary as picking up trash. The emphasis was on service.
Entering Hall High in 1993, Williams had ample opportunity to fall in with the wrong crowd. But Williams, always a good student who got along with her teachers, both black and white, graduated with honors.
Receiving a full scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was another important milestone. Her brother had gone to the UA at Fayetteville and did not have a good experience. Williams majored in social work and minored in psychology and felt the nurturing environment of a small black school. If you missed class, she said, your professor “wanted to know” the reason for your absence.
After graduation, she got a job with Federated Corporate Offices and was sent to Cincinnati. Her mother called her three times a day to make sure she was OK. Tragically, her mother developed cancer. Williams came home to take care of her. She died in 2002.
In 2002, Williams married Eric Williams, a man she’d known since junior high. They first lived in the Levy area in North Little Rock but moved in July 2005 to Shannon Hills in Saline County. Williams, who had two children and a stepdaughter to raise, said the move was prompted by the desire to live in a safe neighborhood with good schools. In her view, her neighborhood, which she estimates was then about 50 percent white, was deteriorating, and her home was decreasing in value. At the time she and her family moved to Shannon Hills, it was at least 90 percent white, she said, but since then it has become perhaps 70 percent white. With her job as a pharmaceutical rep and her husband working for a computer parts company, the family was middle- to upper-middle class.
Raised in a traditional black church, Williams as an adult wanted to find a more diverse venue in which to express her faith. For six years she attended the charismatic integrated mega-church Agape in West Little Rock, but became disenchanted with the minister, “Happy” Caldwell, who she believed was overtly supporting George W. Bush. She and her family now attend the Church at Rock Creek, a Baptist church that is also integrated.
Somewhat ironically, she thought she had lost her interest in Democratic politics, feeling that neither the Democratic nor Republican organizations in Arkansas had anything to offer her. “They were cliquish,” she said flatly. Williams withdrew her affiliation as a Democrat and registered as an independent. She directed her energies to her family, job and church.
And then like millions of other Americans, she watched Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Interested, she read his books “Dreams from my Father” and “The Audacity of Hope” and heard him speak in Little Rock at the State Capitol in the fall of 2006.
Still, she said she “was trending” to Hillary. But around June 2007 she received a call from the Obama campaign that impressed her enough to send in a donation that very day.
It was the beginning of a commitment that grew into a passion. The campaign was not just about sending money or getting something in the mail. In an interview with Williams after the election, she sat down at my computer and logged in to the campaign website mybarackobama.com and showed me her own “page.” It documents that she had hosted 19 “events” and attended 56 “functions.” She was named as the “administrator” of a group of more than 100 sales representatives who were supporting Obama.
What made Obama different for people like Williams was how her support was not only won but how it was valued. As a supporter, she participated in conference calls where she offered her own opinions about issues. By early September 2008 she was convinced it was her personal responsibility to make an even greater commitment; she used her saved-up vacation days to begin volunteering full-time at the North Little Rock headquarters. There, she registered voters, did radio interviews to create awareness about early voting, made phone calls to voters in swing states, handled the front desk when needed, and did all the other nuts-and-bolts chores of a campaign. None of this, she said, would have been possible without the support and help of her husband, grandmother, an aunt and her brother.
At the campaign headquarters Williams encountered a racially mixed group of volunteers and identified a group of eight (five whites and three African-Americans) she grew particularly close to.
Williams remembered, “When you work with a group of people with a common purpose for so long … we became an extended family. We laughed together; we cried together; we had each other’s back. We became one. All of us came from different backgrounds and political affiliations but all of us wanted Senator Obama to become our next president because we believe in the future of America.”
Cherie Grotewold, a 56-year-old white woman from North Little Rock who had worked on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980 and participated in the Republican Convention as an alternate, was one of this group at the North Little Rock headquarters. She had never voted for a Democrat until Obama, but, she, too, became a rabid supporter and traveled to Louisiana, Texas, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Missouri.
Grotewold grew up close to Pike Avenue, where the railroad tracks separated the black and white communities. Her father could neither read nor write. The “N” word was in common use about the house. But Grotewold considered herself more of a political conservative than a social one. When her family needed a loan, they turned to other family members, believing people should take care of their own and not depend on the government. She believed welfare made people lazy. She never thought of herself in these times as being without compassion for others. Indeed, the label of “compassionate conservative” fit her.
A black co-worker at Sears had once tried to disabuse her of the notion that she was a Republican. When she ran into him after the election and told him she had voted for Obama, he took credit for her conversion.
When Obama announced he was going to run, it seemed as if “he was speaking directly to me,” Grotewold said a week after the election. Government, she now believes, does need to help people.
On election night Williams’ group was inseparable. They started at the official Obama site at Sticky Fingerz restaurant in the River Market and ended with their own celebration at 2 a.m. at a suite in the Little Rock Hilton. Williams said that at the moment it was announced that Obama had won, “There really isn’t a word to describe how happy I felt. It was a dream come true after all of the hard work. I cried with tears of joy and hugged my friends that I have grown to love as a family that I was with. I was so proud that America had chosen the right person, not based on the color of his skin but the content of his character.”
The day after the election, Williams was interested in conveying how the campaign had made her think in terms of her responsibility as a citizen and supporter. Williams focused on the responsibility of people like herself who had worked so tirelessly for Obama’s election. “His campaign made us take personal responsibility. When people were crying last night, ‘we’ won. It was ‘our campaign’.”
Of course, all campaign operatives talk about mobilizing supporters at the grassroots, but Obama and his campaign were somehow truly able to touch their supporters at their core. Grotewold remembers seeing in Sticky Fingerz a white man in his 60s crying uncontrollably when the announcement was made that Obama had won. She said, “We started screaming. People were jumping in the air and cheering and hugging each other.” It was “total euphoria.” But like her friend Williams, “then it hit what we had done … a calm came over me. We’ve done it. Everything is going to be OK.”
Had I not witnessed first-hand the complete absence of racial tension or any awkwardness in each transaction and encounter on our trip to and from to Missouri, it would be easier to remain my usual skeptical self when it comes to race relations in Arkansas. What I witnessed in Williams was competence, self-confidence, generosity and a concern for others’ well-being. In the best sense of the word, Williams mothered us through those two days. She did all the driving, made and coordinated all the arrangements, sprang for hors d’oeuvres for the whole table out of her own pocket during two meals, even provided us with a bag of cookies for the return trip. She was always solicitous of aging bladders, at one point quizzing me as if I were one of her children when I didn’t leave the van during a rest stop.
Tony Washington, a paid Obama staff member in the North Little Rock office, talked about Williams’ commitment during the campaign. Among other duties in the office beginning the first of September, Washington supervised voter registration. He said, “From day one she was so enthused. She brought in 100 new voter registrations every week.”
Washington, whose regular job is public affairs liaison for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, was given an opportunity to take a leave of absence and leaped at the chance to work for the Obama campaign. He’s from my hometown of Marianna, and his choices in life have been similar to Williams’. If you are in your 30s and from Lee County, the question is bound to come up: Did he know any members of the infamous Chambers family in Marianna, some of whom ended up in the 1980s in Detroit and created a vast cocaine empire? In school with three members of the Chambers family (none of whom followed their brothers to Detroit) and in a town with almost no employment opportunities for black teen-agers, Washington had ample opportunity to stray. Indeed, recruitment in Marianna for a job in Detroit was not unknown. Marianna soon had a cocaine problem as well.
Raised in the country outside of Marianna by a strict grandmother who was never satisfied with anything less than all As on his report card, Washington graduated in the top 10 percent of Lee High School in 1991 and eventually obtained a hard-earned degree in computer sciences from UAPB.
It is public service, however, that fascinates him, and for the time being he is more than content to work for McDaniel, who he said does not recognize “black” and “white” politics as separate categories. Covering 33 counties, Washington says, there are many days when he is the only black person in the room. He claims that he has always been treated as an equal. Obama he sees as a modern-day Martin Luther King Jr.
Age matters. Arkansas exit polls showed that 49 percent of the 18-to-29 age group voted for Obama, proving perhaps that this younger generation with its technological proficiency is much more sophisticated about the world they inhabit than their elders. In a speech at the Darragh Center after the election, political scientist Jay Barth said that “race was clearly a factor in how many Arkansans voted but not the only reason. Those Arkansans who had problems with his candidacy perceived Obama as the ‘other’ in a number of ways. With a poll showing that only 44 per cent identified him as a Christian, Arkansans in this election expressed a cultural isolationism that is unique in the country.”
Whatever Barack Obama does as president of the United States, he has motivated people like Washington to consider running for and winning state-wide office some day. No matter how you voted, this is good news for Arkansas.
I asked Washington what the election of Barack Obama means to him. He replied, “Hope for America, hope for my son.” What could express the American Dream better?
Five from the North Little Rock Obama campaign office — Williams, Grotewold, Washington, Darrell Stevens and Betsy Woodyard — will be driving up together for the inaugural.
Grif Stockley is an historian for the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. His next book, “Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present,” will be published in January by the University of Arkansas Press.