Gaston & Catawba

A journey for black and white, together

This must be what it felt like to get word that President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

To hear the Supreme Court had declared separate but equal was not equal.

To vote without fearing for your life.

This is what it feels like to believe in the American dream.

This moment.

It is why Harriet Tubman and John Brown risked their lives to free slaves, why Eleanor Roosevelt flew with the Tuskegee Airmen, why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson shared dreams of an America free of racial injustice. And why so many others – black and white – sacrificed their lives so generations of children could have a chance to be anything they wanted.

Tuesday, a nation once divided by Confederate gray and Yankee blue, white sheets and black fists, united to elect a black man as president of the United States.

In doing so, we change how the world sees America, and how we see ourselves. This election is a manifestation of a journey toward equality that whites and blacks continue to take hand-in-hand.

“We are not as divided as our politics suggests,” Obama said after a disappointing loss in the New Hampshire primary. “Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation.”

The speech moved Erin Dunn, 34, to become active in a political campaign for the first time in her life. Dunn remembers crying alone in her living room as she watched his speech.

She created a profile on Obama's Web site. The independent who usually votes Republican organized an Obama fundraiser that I covered.

“I saw him as a combination of JFK and Ronald Reagan. I don't think people saw race,” said Dunn, who is white. “People are ready to vote for the right candidate and they see him as the right candidate, and I don't think it matters what color he is.”

Color mattered to Freda Christ. I met her and several other older voters for coffee last week in Highland Creek. The 78-year-old says Obama represents a turning point for the South. Christ, a Nashville native, said she was disappointed that angry Southerners switched to the Republican Party after civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s.

“It makes me happy to think it's turning around,” said Christ. “They're voting for a black man, and that makes me feel like (the South is) redeeming itself.”

Many white voters such as Dunn and Christ knocked on doors and held fundraisers or simply voiced their support for Obama.

Still, African Americans worried that when it came time to hit the button, not enough white people would vote for a black man as president.

“I never thought I'd see the day,” said Janice Standifer, 59, standing in line to vote at Beatties Ford Road library. “I thought they would push us back and not let us come out ahead.”

As the polls showed Obama's lead widening, former Mayor Harvey Gantt – who experienced his own Bradley effect – was convinced Obama would win.

Crazy, right? Only 18 years ago, Gantt lost a heartbreaking N.C. Senate race to the late Republican Jesse Helms. Despite white voters telling pollsters they would vote for Gantt, not enough of them did.

This year was different.

Gantt says Obama's election is transformational. Most of the people who told pollsters they would vote for Obama did.

“A lot of people are jumping over the broom to vote for Obama for the first time,” said Gantt. “And the thing about it is, you never see people jumping back over the broom.”

The leap reflects our optimism in America's promise of equality. It reminds us that we are all – black and white – bound by a common dream.