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Rutha Mae Harris backed her silver Town Car out of the driveway early Tuesday morning, pointed it toward her polling place on Mercer Avenue and started to sing.
“I’m going to vote like the spirit say vote,” Miss Harris chanted softly.
I’m going to vote like the spirit say vote,
I’m going to vote like the spirit say vote,
And if the spirit say vote I’m going to vote,
Oh Lord, I’m going to vote when the spirit say vote.
As a 21-year-old student, she had bellowed that same freedom song at mass meetings at Mount Zion Baptist Church back in 1961, the year Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, a universe away. She sang it again while marching on Albany’s City Hall, where she and other black students demanded the right to vote, and in the cramped and filthy cells of the city jail, which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as the worst he ever inhabited.
For those like Miss Harris who withstood jailings and beatings and threats to their livelihoods, all because they wanted to vote, the short drive to the polls on Tuesday culminated a lifelong journey from a time that is at once unrecognizable and eerily familiar here in southwest Georgia. As they exited the voting booths, some in wheelchairs, others with canes, these foot soldiers of the civil rights movement could not suppress either their jubilation or their astonishment at having voted for an African-American for president of the United States.
“They didn’t give us our mule and our acre, but things are better,” Miss Harris, 67, said with a gratified smile. “It’s time to reap some of the harvest.” When Miss Harris arrived at the city gymnasium where she votes, her 80-year-old friend Mamie L. Nelson greeted her with a hug. “We marched, we sang and now it’s happening,” Ms. Nelson said. “It’s really a feeling I cannot describe.”
Many, like the Rev. Horace C. Boyd, who was then and is now pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, viewed the moment through the prism of biblical prophecy. If Dr. King was the movement’s Moses, doomed to die without crossing the Jordan, it would fall to Mr. Obama to be its Joshua, they said. “King made the statement that he viewed the Promised Land, won’t get there, but somebody will get there, and that day has dawned,” said Mr. Boyd, 81, who pushed his wife in a wheelchair to the polls late Tuesday morning. “I’m glad that it has.”
It was a day most never imagined that they would live to see. From their vantage point amid the cotton fields and pecan groves of Dougherty County, where the movement for voting rights faced some of its most determined resistance, the country simply did not seem ready.
Yes, the world had changed in 47 years. At City Hall, the offices once occupied by the segregationist mayor, Asa D. Kelley Jr., and the police chief, Laurie Pritchett, are now filled by Mayor Willie Adams and Chief James Younger, both of whom are black. But much in this black-majority city of 75,000 also seems the same: neighborhoods remain starkly delineated by race, blacks are still five times more likely than whites to live in poverty and the public schools have so resegregated that 9 of every 10 students are black.
Miss Harris, a retired special education teacher who was jailed three times in 1961 and 1962, was so convinced that Mr. Obama could not win white support that she backed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries. “I just didn’t feel it was time for a black man, to be honest,” she said. “But the Lord has revealed to me that it is time for a change.”
Late Tuesday night, when the networks declared Mr. Obama the winner, Miss Harris could not hold back the tears, the emotions of a lifetime released in a flood. She shared a lengthy embrace with friends gathered at the Obama headquarters, and then led the exultant crowd in song. “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” she sang. After a prayer, she joined the crowd in chanting, “Yes, we did!”
Among the things Miss Harris appreciates about Mr. Obama is that even though he was in diapers while she was in jail, he seems to respect what came before. “He’s of a different time and place, but he knows whose shoulders he’s standing on,” she said.
When the movement came to Albany in 1961, fewer than 100 of Dougherty County’s 20,000 black residents were registered to vote, said the Rev. Charles M. Sherrod, one of the first field workers sent here by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Literacy tests made a mockery of due process — Mr. Boyd remembers being asked by a registrar how many bubbles were in a bar of soap — and bosses made it clear to black workers that registration might be incompatible with continued employment.
Lucius Holloway Sr., 76, said he lost his job as a post office custodian after he began registering voters in neighboring Terrell County. He said he was shunned by other blacks who hated him for the trouble he incited.
Enter the word that best describes your mood and follow the most popular choices from readers. Now Mr. Holloway is a member of the county commission, and when he voted for Mr. Obama last week he said his pride was overwhelming. “Thank you, Jesus, I lived to see the fruit of my labor,” he said.
The Albany movement spread with frenzied abandon after the arrival of Mr. Sherrod and other voting-rights organizers, and Dr. King devoted nearly a year to the effort. The protests became known for the exuberant songs that Miss Harris and others adapted from Negro spirituals. (She would go on to become one of the Freedom Singers, a group that traveled the country as heralds for the civil rights movement.) In the jails, the music helped while away time and soothe the soul, just as they had in the fields a century before.
But the movement met its match in Albany’s recalcitrant white leaders, who filled the jails with demonstrators while avoiding the kind of violence that drew media outrage and federal intervention in other civil rights battlegrounds. The energy gradually drained from the protests, and Dr. King moved on to Birmingham, counting Albany as a tactical failure.
Mr. Sherrod, 71, who settled in Albany and continues to lead a civil rights group here, argues that the movement succeeded; it simply took time. He said he felt the weight of that history when he voted last Thursday morning, after receiving radiation treatment for his prostate cancer. He thought of the hundreds of mass meetings, of the songs of hope and the sermons of deliverance. “This is what we prayed for, this is what we worked for,” he said. “We have a legitimate chance to be a democracy.”
Over and again, the civil rights veterans drew direct lines between their work and the colorblindness of Mr. Obama’s candidacy. But they emphasized that they did not vote for him simply because of his race.
“I think he would make just as good a president as any one of those whites ever made, that’s what I think about it,” said 103-year-old Daisy Newsome, who knocked on doors to register voters “until my hand was sore,” and was jailed in 1961 during a march that started at Mount Zion Baptist. “It ain’t because he’s black, because I’ve voted for the whites.” She added, “I know he can’t be no worse than what there’s done been.”
Mount Zion has now been preserved as a landmark, attached to a new $4 million civil rights museum that was financed through a voter-approved sales tax increase. Across the street, Shiloh Baptist, founded in 1888, still holds services in the sanctuary where Dr. King preached at mass meetings.
Among those leading Sunday’s worship was the associate pastor, Henry L. Mathis, 53, a former city commissioner whose grandmother was a movement stalwart. He could not let the moment pass without looking back.
“We are standing on Jordan’s stony banks, and we’re casting a wishful eye to Canaan’s fair and happy land,” Mr. Mathis preached. “We sang through the years that we shall overcome, but our Father, our God, we pray now that you show that we have overcome.”
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