When integration came to Morgantown Junior High, I knew my life had been enriched. To my good fortune, a young African-American, Charles Blue, and I were placed in the same eighth-grade homeroom. That year, “Chuck” led our homeroom to the eighth-grade championship in all-around sports. Best of all, I had gained a dear, honorable friend for life. Another African-American, Charolotte Johnson, tried out for cheerleader that year. Her “try-out” was a song and dance number that went something like . . . “Strawberry shortcake, huckleberry pie, let’s all cheer for Morgantown Junior High.” She won in a landslide. Charolotte’s wonderful innocent spirit infected all students and teachers who were fortunate to see her “try-out” that day.
The turmoil and racial violence percolating in the fifties exploded in the sixties. But, as a sophomore at West Virginia University in 1960, I got to watch the great running back Ernie Davis lead his Syracuse football team to victory against the Mountaineers, and, contrary to the recent film, The Express, I witnessed none of the violent racist actions seen in the film. Needless to say, it is dismaying to see West Virginians portrayed in such a deplorable light.
Today, when I hear crowds at McCain campaign stops disparaging Barack Obama with shouts of “terrorist,” “kill him,” “bomb him,” “Arab,” “uppity” (which in the dark days was often followed by the “N” word), and “elitist,” I am unfortunately reminded of the mobs of the sixties. It seems to me that the McCain campaign, to say the least, is pandering to racism — dangerously so. West Virginians did not hurl racial invectives or throw garbage at Ernie Davis in 1960.
They are, however, familiar with stereotyping. They know all too well the words, “hicks,” “uneducated,” inbred,” “hillbillies,” “white trash.” Educators at all levels in West Virginia have worked hard to give all children in the state a good education. Will these children be called “elitist” because they dare to aspire? We want our leaders to be smart and well educated.
Pete Seeger, a Harvard drop out, has an admirable ability to elicit a sense of hope about the future and self. Call Seeger a folk singer, a socialist, a communist, poet, musician, storyteller, savior of the Hudson River, his credibility seems to transcend politics, philosophy or science. As a friend of his has said, “[Seeger] personifies what can happen when a human being maintains hope in adversity, restructures his thinking and helps those around him to do the same.”
Barack Obama is helping me rediscover my hope — a hope that is not a thoughtless, carefree walk in the sun, but a hope that allows me to put one foot in front of the other, to keep going forward. He dares me to believe that together we can mend the fences of fear. He encourages us to do what West Virginians have always done, take pleasure in each other, in community, and have faith in the good part of ourselves. West Virginians have long held the strong belief that all people are, in principle, equal and should enjoy equal social, political, and economic rights and opportunities.
I am a white male from West Virginia, and the perception for some is that I am not supposed to want a black man for president. In that case, America, not just Obama, loses, and our country’s climb out of its decline — whether in our economy, education, medicine, science, or world prestige — will stagnate. Abraham Lincoln wanted this country to be an example of what democracy could be for the world. I believe Obama represents that best example and is the only candidate who can turn this country around. Senator Obama has convinced me that I can trust my better angel. All West Virginians can trust their “better angels” and feel better the morning after Obama safely crosses the finish line and is elected our president. Don’t be fooled; don’t let fear get in the way. We can do it, West Virginians. “Yes we can.”