Originally published in Swarthmore’s Bulletin magazine:

“A Change Is Gonna Come”

An Obama campaigner shares the jubilation of his candidate’s victory.

By Benjamin Bradlow ’08
obama_1.jpg

Barack Obama

When I found myself in Barack Obama’s campaign field office in South Philadelphia on Election Day—where I had worked for the past month—I couldn’t help feeling somewhat surprised to be there. For almost the entirety of my awareness of politics, I had been alienated from my government, estranged from my country, and unsure of my generation. That night, campaign workers cried, screamed, and high-fived their way through the office and into the dancing multitudes on Philadelphia’s Broad Street, a block away from our office.

I felt the empowerment of my youth. I screamed, hugged, and danced in the streets of this struggling, emotional city, with friends and with strangers, black and white. This was my country, shorn of the shackles of our parents, of our teachers, of our former leaders. After years of feeling that the Bush administration was just one constant attempt to hoodwink the country and the world, I could begin to consider that maybe we had pulled the ultimate trump card in what had previously been just a high stakes game of political frivolity.

Soon after I had started at the South Philadelphia office, in early October, reports emerged that John McCain would be making his last stand in Pennsylvania, hoping to chip away at Obama’s support in heavily populated Philadelphia by targeting white, working-class neighborhoods in Northeast and South Philadelphia. Obama visited four areas of the city during my first weekend working for the campaign. His last stop was at 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, long a key shopping avenue for the city’s historic African American community. The crowd overflowed at least two blocks beyond the designated area for the rally. Old ladies cried; crowds chanted, “Yes we can”; and street hawkers entertained by contorting the candidate’s name as they shouted into bullhorns, “Obamaobamaobamaobama!” It was both moving and fitting that his last stop in Philadelphia would be to this area of the city, which surely had never before been the focus of a presidential campaign. Still, this was all he would offer as help in our fight in the biggest battleground city of the election.

We were left with our “bodies on the doors” strategy, to use the vaguely dehumanizing, gung-ho language of the campaign field staff. So I went to the doors in the wards where Hillary Clinton had rung up large margins—up to 50 percent—in her primary challenge to Obama earlier in the year. These wards were full of the white, working-class voters who, we had been told, would never vote for a black man. My pleas were sometimes met by aggressive, racist ripostes. “It’s been the White House for 200 years, and I don’t want it to become the Black House,” one man with a thick foreign accent told me, somehow laying claim to an imagined legacy that was clearly an adopted one for him.

A father playing with his children at a playground in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza predicted, “If he gets in, he’s going to bring Sharpton, Jackson, and Farrakhan with him.”

But more often than not, and, it seemed, as the economic picture became increasingly bleak, I heard tales of lost jobs, financial insecurity, and a desire among Republicans and Democrats alike to vote for the person “who cares about me.” The stories fit right into the Obama pitches I had seen in TV ads and speeches, and I began to adopt some of his rhetoric in selling his candidacy when I spoke to voters: “John McCain wants to double down on the failed Bush policies of the last eight years.” “Obama is working for you.” “We can’t afford John McCain.”

More and more South Philadelphians seemed to agree as the weeks went by. But the campaign fight in the area was going to go down to the bitter end. One undecided old lady, skeptical of Obama’s experience, couldn’t help but note, “The young people really seem to like him.” “That’s why I’m here,” I almost replied.

We had to convince the people who had heard all about how Barack Obama was not like them that he actually was. This occasionally became a tougher proposition than I had bargained for. In late October, I made a call to a woman in a predominantly African American area of South Philadelphia. I stuck to the script. “Can we count on your support for Barack Obama this Election Day?”

“Yes, but I never hear him talking about us,” she said. “It’s always ‘the middle class.’ Well I’m definitely not the middle class. When is somebody going to talk about the working poor?”

All I could say to this woman, as I listened to the cries of her young children in the background, was, “You’re right.”

A black woman was unsure of Obama despite his being black, and white people were doubtful because he was black. Some were hopeful despite their fears of being let down, while others were afraid to hope. And I was beginning to regain my own political inspiration — “to drink the Obama kool-aid,” as my younger brother liked to joke — as I watched this inner battle playing out with voters across South Philadelphia.

As the last days of the campaign piled up, I received an e-mail from my mother encouraging me to keep working hard so that we could all celebrate on Election Day. She signed off as “the original Obamamama.” I shook my head in wonder at her motherly idiosyncrasies. I thought of what this election meant to her and my father, white South Africans who emigrated in the late 1970s and were now planning on moving back to their home country.

In my house, growing up, there was always one political hero: Nelson Mandela. By the time Mandela was actually on the ballot in South Africa, my parents had lived in the United States for more than 25 years, had become citizens, and had voted in many American elections. On Nov. 4, it struck me. They had left a country that, among its many injustices, denied the possibility of a black man for president in a majority black country. Today, they would cast their first vote for a black chief executive not in South Africa, but in the United States, a country with its own fraught history of racism. As I made my way through that day, I thought about when they would vote. Maybe they would see it as their election, just as much as I saw it as mine.

The street celebrations of Obama’s victory seemed to belong to the young and racially diverse crowd that gathered that night. I felt one with this crowd and our victory. The next morning, I realized an even more profound truth. This election belonged to everyone. At Greater Mount Olive A.M.E. Church, where I had coordinated volunteer canvassers in the days leading up to Election Day, older members of the African American church laid their claim to the victory, drawing the lineage of King and Kennedy to Obama. White and black of all ages were smiling at each other on the public bus I took back to the campaign office to begin cleaning up. This was not just my election. This election belonged to my parents. It was the election of the tired old lady in South Philadelphia worried about her dwindling retirement money and skyrocketing pharmaceutical bills. It belonged to African Americans across the country waiting on Martin Luther King’s dream.

I took it as my own as well. I ran into a friend in the streets near the campaign office that day, and all we could do was hug and talk about our hopes for the future. Barack Obama was our next president. We had inspired and become inspired along the way. Such optimism was out there in broad daylight for everyone to see and feel.

I scoured the Internet throughout the day for reactions from around the world, waiting to see what Mandela, and my family’s number two hero, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid, would say. The first time I cried during the entire election season was when I read of their public joy at this momentous occasion.

A few days later, my parents forwarded me a private e-mail a family friend had received from Tutu. On Election Night, Barack Obama recalled the soul singer Sam Cooke’s powerful “A Change Is Gonna Come” when he told America and the world that “change has come.” And in his message, Tutu—that voice I had always admired that combined wisdom, justice, old age, and youthful exuberance all in one—articulated in his response what every single one of us was feeling at that moment: “Yippee!”

If anybody arrives to this site from the link the editors put at the end of the article, welcome!

This may be a little late, given the non-stop presidential campaign post-mortems of the last week, but I was told to keep quiet about the campaign until my time on staff at the Obama office in South Philly was formally up last Friday. One of the primary narratives that surrounded the campaign generally and particularly when it came to South Philly, where I’ve lived since the middle of September, was how the white working class/middle class (terms too often conflated without considering their significantly divergent meanings) vote was turning on race.

The New York Times political reporter Katharine Q. Seelye went after this story big time just two days before the election took place. It appears as though she went around the exact same neighborhoods in wards 26 and 39 where I canvassed and coordinated other volunteer canvassers in the weeks leading up to the election. In fact, I was canvassing out of Marconi Plaza at Broad and Oregon exactly one week before Seelye spoke to

Harry Klemash, 67, a Democrat who supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary but is still not comfortable with Senator Barack Obama. “Obama has too many socialist policies, and he doesn’t have enough experience,” Mr. Klemash, a retired pressman, said Sunday as he walked his miniature poodle in Marconi Park in South Philadelphia, a largely white, Catholic, ethnic neighborhood.

In this exact spot one week before I was approached by a man who bounded towards our Obama canvass table on a windy Sunday afternoon. He asked me what we were doing in the park and I asked him if he knew who he was supporting in the election (standard canvass script). He said he was undecided and so I asked him how he felt about the last eight years — my standard first line of attack. After going through everything that had gone wrong under the Bush presidency, we finally got to his skepticism about Obama. This ran the gamut of Jeremiah Wright’s Jeremiads (thanks Prof. Kendall Johnson), to worries that Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson and Louis Farrakhan would all be in power in an Obama administration. After we worked through the unlikelihood of that happening — hadn’t Jackson threatened to cut off Obama’s balls? — it was clear this guy was hurting at the bank. Suddenly he was saying, “We need a change.” It was only a matter of time before another volunteer had already signed him up for some Get Out The Vote weekend volunteer shifts (I wonder if he ever showed up).

But what about Seelye’s portrait of the exact same neighborhood? It’s not that it was innacurate, after all the one ward in the city to vote for McCain was ward 26, which includes Marconi Plaza’s western border. Still, it simplified a richer portrait, one that lends credence to what Ezra Klein suggested may have been a Pennsylvania fake out by the Obama campaign. Sure, I heard old Italian guys tell me that we should “keep the White House white” and had other McCain supporters scream at me that Obama was a Muslim. More often I heard people say, “I just want whoever is going to help me,” and then proceed to tell me that they can’t find work or that they aren’t getting enough hours at the job that they have. As the last month of the campaign went on, I heard less skepticism about Obama’s experience, associations, or his race. It was either “I’m hurting too bad to worry about that stuff” — one guy even answered his door, “Yeah, I’m voting for the colored guy” — or skepticism about Sarah Palin, McCain’s age or his help-the-rich-forget-everybody-else policies.

So no, I wasn’t surprised that South Philly was where McCain’s faint dreams came to die. My anecdotal experience seemed to tell the story. You can use Sarah Palin to whip a few rural southerners into a racist frenzy, shredding any last shred of dignity you had before this campaign, but white South Philadelphians weren’t going to buy your appeal to the dregs of racial populism. It wasn’t surprising to me to read of similar things going on in the northeast part of the city, which has similar demographics and was also considered potentially ripe territory for the McCain campaign. At the end of the day, “the colored guy” cared about the average South Philly pocket book and “the war hero” couldn’t care less about putting “country first.” I doubt last Tuesday’s spontaneous celebrations extended too far down Broad Street into Marconi Plaza, but I imagine many down there were pleased to have a fighting chance in Obama’s America.

———

To temper a little of the unbridled euphoria (of which I’ve been plenty guilty), one phone call I made to a black mother a little further north of Marconi Plaza, but still in South Philly should remind everyone to keep their eyes on the prize. For all the articles written about South Philly in this campaign, few recognized the extent to which segregation still defines the region of the city. South Philly is not all white and, in fact, two wards — 30 and 36 — have significant, struggling black populations that helped win this state and this election for Obama. I called a mother in ward 36 and asked her if she would be supporting Obama. She answered, “Yeah, but he doesn’t ever talk about us. He always talks about the middle class, but I’m not the middle class. I’m the working poor.” All I could say is, “you’re right.” And the ranks of the working poor will continue to rise with the way the economy is headed — wages go down, full time work becomes even more rare, inflation rises.

We can hope that Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago might lend a little meat to the new Office of Urban Policy, but the fact is this campaign held on to the myth of the middle class in this county more than ever before. Even though basically everyone identifies as middle class, this one woman’s plea for Marxist sanity broke through all the myth-making and reminded me that Obama represents a lot of great things and that he could also accomplish great things, but many Americans continue to struggle after the excitement of his victory dies down.