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!

Originally appeared on WHYY’s It’s Our City blog:

I attended my first of the Mayor Michael Nutter’s town hall meetings about his planned budget cuts last night. There’s been a lot of discussion about the evolving stagecraft of the town hall meetings. It was a welcome innovation to have the relevant department heads speak in addition to the mayor, and Nutter was relatively mobile throughout the gymnasium. City officials are distributing forms asking people to say what they view as the city services to be prioritized in the budget, and they’ve already started publishing the results. Still, this meeting seemed stuck between two different political goals: explaining the cuts and seeking input from the public…

Read the rest here.

—-

Also, Swarthmore – unprompted by me! – linked to my video piece about a casino development in Philadelphia. You can find that here.

I’ll be back to actually blogging at this site in the next day or two.