Growing up poor and black in Mississippi, Gerri Hall learned there was a meanness in the world, a set of laws and customs aimed at people like her, which her mother tried to explain once when they were forced to stand aside and let a white lady use the sidewalk.
“Honey,” Hall remembers her mother saying, “that’s just the way it is in Mississippi.”
But there was also love and pride and determination in rural Greenwood, along with a belief that things could and would eventually change — and the way to change them was within her grasp.
“In order to make a difference,” Hall says her father often told her, “you’ve got to understand politics and get involved.”
Fifty years later, there is a black man in the White House and Hall is firmly rooted in the middle class, with a nice home in a leafy neighborhood, a pension from her 30-year job at General Motors and enough savings to help her grown son buy a starter place of his own.
“Things have definitely gotten better,” she allows, “in terms of tolerance and coexistence and people getting along.”
Hall is not, however, satisfied. For the next year, she has one overriding goal: to see that President Obama wins a second term, to show his victory was no fluke, to silence his critics and give him more time to implement the policies she sees thwarted, heedlessly and incessantly, by his Republican foes.
Like many black Americans, Hall, 60, looks at the president and sees a reflection of herself: joys and triumphs but also challenges and adversity, a good part of it, she suggests, owing to the color of his skin. “When we look at President Obama, we can relate to what he’s experiencing because of the experiences in our own backgrounds,” Hall says over lunch at an Irish-themed restaurant, where she stands out as one of the few black patrons.
The sentiment may explain why Obama still enjoys commanding support among African Americans, even though blacks have suffered the worst of the deep recession that soured so many others on the incumbent.
“He came from where the majority of minorities came from, from meager beginnings,” says Reggie Smith, a local head of the United Auto Workers union, who laughingly recalls how he, like Obama, once drove a car with a rusted hole in the floor. “He can relate like no other president before, and that’s what keeps him strong in the African American community.”
Obama won 95% of the black vote in his first presidential race and will likely match that next year. The question is whether 2008’s record black turnout can be repeated, or even exceeded, now that the heady days are long gone. Even Obama, speaking this fall in Los Angeles, conceded his reelection bid “will not be as sexy” as his first run.
But Hall, who keeps a grinning photo of the president dangling from her key chain, is adamant Obama will surpass that performance. “We’re not just saying” — here she adopts a mincing tone — ‘Oh, let’s elect an African American president.’ We already have a black president. What we need to do is give him support so he can work his plan.”
A lifelong Democrat, Hall is vice chairwoman of the local party and its black caucus, a fixture in Flint politics and a field marshal in the huge get-out-the-vote operation Obama is building in Michigan, a state vital to his reelection hopes.
She is a regular at senior centers, block meetings and community events — “If there’s 15 Democrats in a room, Gerri will be one of them,” says local state Sen. John Gleason — talking up the importance of voting and, lately, reelecting the president. She stays relentlessly on message in a way some candidates might envy. When a neighbor and Obama backer says others in the black community may be somewhat disappointed — “It turns out he doesn’t walk on water” — Hall leaps in. “Now, you know,” she says, friendly but firmly, “if he didn’t have Congress blocking him, things would be a whole lot better.”
For Hall, reelecting Obama is more than a political mission. It is personal as well, a debt repaid to her mother and father, a down payment for her son and granddaughter. She takes no pay. A voice inside says, “This is what you need to do, Gerri, whether you’re paid or not.”
The statistics are grim. The poverty rate for African American children has increased under Obama, along with black joblessness. Nationally, black unemployment was 15.5% in November, almost twice the overall rate. For black teenagers it was just under 40%.
Even so, African Americans remain far more upbeat than the rest of the country. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll done with theGrio.com, a black-oriented website, found that 49% of African Americans felt the country was on the right track, compared with nearly 3 in 4 overall who felt otherwise. Most African Americans blamed congressional Republicans, rather than Obama, for the country’s economic ills.
“If he doesn’t get assistance from the people in those domes,” said David Jackson, 39, a guidance counselor at Flint’s community college, “then his policies get watered down or polluted … to where they never have the effect he intended.”
Unemployment is officially 16.5% in Flint, where fortunes soared and, for the last several decades, plummeted with the near collapse of the auto industry. But local analysts believe the true jobless rate is more like 45%, once those who have quit looking are counted.
Still, in several days of interviews not one black voter blamed Obama for the hard times. Flint’s problems, they say, have long been building, like the ones the president inherited. “He’s just dealing with everything that was waiting for him when he walked in the Oval Office,” said auto repair shop owner Edward Williams, 39. “There was a big pile.”
In perhaps the brightest news for Obama, 59% of African Americans surveyed nationally said they were more enthusiastic about voting in 2012 than four years ago. “It isn’t about party,” said Herman Marable, a district judge who joined Hall for an open house at Obama’s Flint campaign office. “This is about having somebody’s back who is under attack.”
The president may need all the help he can get. Barring a dramatic shift, the 2012 election is likely to be much closer than 2008. Several states that Obama won, including North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Ohio, will be competitive only if black supporters turn out again in big numbers.
In 2008, Obama won Michigan with 57% support, the best Democratic showing in 44 years. In the 2010 midterm vote, about 700,000 Democrats and party supporters stayed home and the GOP won every statewide office, a legislative majority, and two previously Democratic congressional seats.
In Genesee County, which includes Flint, the drop-off was nearly 38,000 Democratic votes — each and every one viewed by Hall as almost a personal affront.
“People need to step it up,” she says.
When Hall was 13, she sneaked out of her house to hear civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer talk about the importance of voting, which was nearly impossible then for blacks in Mississippi. Hall recalls little about that 1964 night, save her parents’ concern for her safety — people were killed agitating to vote — and the fervor of the grown-ups crowding the small church.
The time had come, they said, for black people — especially young ones — to claim the full promise of their citizenship. “That’s why I’m so passionate now,” Hall says, stabbing the tabletop with a finger.
As the second of eight children, Hall helped raise her siblings while her father, a factory foreman, and mother, a housekeeper, worked to scrape by. To this day, Hall has the manner of one accustomed to being in charge: her diction precise, her dress fastidious and her case for Obama outlined in PowerPoint and carefully sorted fact sheets.
As his children grew, Hall’s father took a second job, as a handyman, to pay for college. Through a process of elimination — teaching paid too little, law school cost too much — Hall ended up studying finance. Armed with a business degree, she followed countless blacks who left the South to work at GM. She met her future husband, an assembly line worker, and they had a son, who now works for the city of Flint. Hall and her husband eventually divorced.
For 31 years, she was an auditor and GM analyst, and even though Mississippi was in her past, there were reminders of the old meanness. Once, a West Virginia car dealer wouldn’t stand for a black woman (not his words) going over the books, so headquarters sent a white accountant to help.
Throughout, Hall dove into campaigning: licking envelopes, making phone calls, walking precincts. In 2008, she was one of Obama’s early Michigan supporters, when most establishment Democrats backed Hillary Rodham Clinton. Among other things, he struck her as electable like no black presidential candidate before.
She traveled to Denver for Obama’s nomination and to Washington for his inauguration — “something I had to witness in person” — and though her parents never lived to see the day, Hall shared photos with her 102-year-old great-grandmother.
Today, Hall’s life is carefully segmented: two days of substitute teaching (to supplement her pension); two days with her granddaughter, Cyana; two days for politicking; Sundays in church. It is a balance she expects to shift heavily toward campaigning in 2012.
Some years ago, Hall switched churches to join a more youthful congregation, hoping to inspire younger people the way Fannie Lou Hamer and others once fired her imagination.
On an autumn Sunday, Hall sat at the rear of the sanctuary, alongside Cyana, 4, smiling as one of her PowerPoints flashed on a big screen, reminding worshipers of local elections. When the service ended, Hall dashed for the exit and passed out copies of Flint’s black newspaper — featuring a front-page article touting Obama’s jobs plan — as members of the choir filed past in black and gold robes.
With less than a year until the election, her work was just beginning.