By Mike Hixenbaugh
Published Nov. 6, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama didn’t need North Carolina to become the first black man elected to the White House, but earning a majority of the votes here was a symbolic triumph in a state with a history mired by segregation and slavery.
Obama was declared the winner of North Carolina on Thursday, two days after state election officials announced the race too close to call. His win here was the first for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976.
A generation ago, few Rocky Mount residents would have guessed a black man would carry the state in a presidential contest. But on Thursday, local residents began discussing the implications of Obama’s victory in the Tar Heel State.
“I thought in time, we might reach this point but not nearly as quickly as it has happened,” said 72-year-old former Rocky Mount Mayor Fred Turnage, having helped guide his hometown through desegregation more than 35 years ago. “I think North Carolina has been a little bit ahead of most other Southern states – a little more progressive. But this I did not expect so soon.”
As part of the Old Confederacy, North Carolina has a legacy of racial tension. But much has changed in the 50 years since Jim Crow gave way to the Civil Rights movement.
Former Tarboro Councilman Roland Clark said he can remember clear as yesterday marching through the streets of Cicero, Ill., with men like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as whites hurled bricks and stones at the crowd.
After learning Obama had officially won North Carolina, Clark acknowledged it was a great advancement for equality. But he was too concerned about the economy to become emotional, he said.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Clark said, “so that’s what I have been thinking about.”
The Associated Press declared Obama the winner Thursday after canvassing counties in North Carolina to determine the number of outstanding provisional ballots. That survey found that there are not enough remaining ballots for Republican John McCain to close a 13,693-vote deficit.
North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes bring Obama’s total to 364 – nearly 100 more than necessary to win the White House. Obama won a majority of the votes in the Twin Counties, defeating McCain by more than 9,000 votes in Edgecombe County. McCain out-polled Obama in Nash County by 600 votes.
Residents of Princeville screamed in celebration from their porches Tuesday night, shouting out to the world from the first U.S. town incorporated by freed black slaves following the Civil War.
Rudolph Knight, a local black historian who grew up in Tarboro, said Obama’s North Carolina victory was about more than vindicating years of suffering in the black community.
“You look at him, and you realize he is a symbol of diversity,” Knight, 61, said. “As an African-American, I see myself in him, obviously since he has an African father. But a white person can look at him and also see themselves, him being the son of a white woman from Kansas. The whole world, not just this nation, is supporting him.”
Many voters in Nash and Edgecombe counties and throughout the nation, however, are outraged over Obama’s win.
The McCain-Palin sticker still is posted on Steve Miles’ bumper, and he plans to keep it there. The Rocky Mount resident said while filling his gas tank that he hopes Obama will be a decent president, but he doubts it.
“I don’t get the big deal about the race,” Miles said. “I don’t see color. I really don’t see what’s to celebrate. I just see bad policies and higher taxes.”
Politics aside, the symbolism of a black man winning a presidential race in states like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida is significant, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political science professor Ferrel Guillory said, noting that the race was close in each of those states.
“One campaign certainly doesn’t equal a trend,” Guillory said. “But there has been a clear shift.”
An influx of first-time black voters and more moderate voters who have moved into the state during the last decade pushed Obama to victory. Between 2004 and 2006, North Carolina’s voter rolls swelled from 4.2 million to 6.2 million.
The Obama campaign also benefited from voter discontent over the economy and the war. Still, for Obama to win a state represented six years ago by archconservative Jesse Helms is remarkable, Guillory said.
“I tell my students that the story of the South is one of dramatic change – sometimes of reluctant change – but also one of hope that we as Southerners have worked to overcome our past frictions,” Guillory said. “We have not completely overcome. Not yet. But regardless of politics, the Obama victory is one more cycle in that continuing change.”