A Stream of Change at Fountain Square

Obama's presence in Cincinnati, if only for one night, stripped away years of racial strife in the socially conservative city.

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Barack Obama's address to the NAACP convention was unspectacular, as these things go. It's just that we'd heard all his material before, as good as it is.

Repeat tomorrow.

What made the NAACP speech significant wasn't what Obama said and it didn't happen in the convention hall. Its significance was in a crowd thousands-deep, two blocks away from the suited-and-tied, glad-handing delegates and deadline-stressed media. More than an hour before the speech, Cincy's Fountain Square was packed in a way it rarely is. A year ago, I'm told, you could barely get people to gather there; not long ago I wrote about Mayor Mark Mallory telling downtown muckety-mucks that a local suburbanite believed downtown was a place where gunshot victims piled up overnight (trust me folks, it ain't).

No one, though, was afraid of downtown Monday night, except maybe an overzealous John McCain supporter who showed up in Cincy two days early and found out that he'd crashed the wrong block party.

Mattafact, there will be no John McCain block party when he speaks Wednesday morning, which is almost surreal given the pull the GOP has in these parts. Ohio's a swing state where the pendulum's been stuck to the right in the past few presidential contests, and though many black elected officials here are Dems, this is one of few towns where black Republicans have been elected with any frequency.

But something's different around here now and the difference was evident on Fountain Square Monday night. I wrote a few months ago for the Cincinnati Enquirer that many of Cincy's black Republicans had switched their registration during the Ohio primary to support Obama. Last night, I ran into one of them, Charlie Winburn, a black, Republican former city councilman, loudly socially conservative, at an Obama rally.

"This is great for Cincinnati," he told me, after daps and hugs. "This is what we need to see in the city."

He wasn't the only unlikely face in the crowd; for all the contextualizing of the NAACP's meeting in Cincy, a town with a tumultuous race-relations record, Fountain Square had, as my friend put it "as diverse a crowd as I've ever seen here." She's lived here three years.

In a story about the crowd on the square, one of my Enquirer colleagues quoted 35-year-old Matthew McGrath (who I might be all kinds of wrong for assuming is white), as saying that, "Nothing like this—race relations wise—has ever happened in Cincinnati...If the potential election of Obama can do this for Cincinnati, it is the single most important event in the last few decades."

Obama's mere presence dwarfed southwest Ohio's history as a conservative stronghold. It eclipsed the NAACP convention, the reason why the man came to town. It stripped away, however briefly, a city's racially-torn image. It was a big enough deal for the city's leaders to throw a party on the town square just because he came.

I don't know if that spells trouble for McCain. Lord knows a good showing on a Monday night in July won't win anyone the presidency, much less give the state of Ohio to a black, liberal, Chicago Democrat. But if there was a wandering McCain supporter in the crowd, I'd love to have found him to ask just how nervous he was.

Keith Reed is a writer living in Ohio.