Trickle Up History

How black voters raged against the machine and took charge.


We all know by now that Barack Obama made history last Tuesday night.
But so did Victoria Middlebrook. For all the momentous change at the top in this election year, it comes as a result of a triumphant change at the bottom. Obama rode a wave of reform created by millions of people like Middlebrook.

Middlebrook, 39, can't usually be bothered with politics. She's got two kids, 6 and 10, and works full time down at Eli Lilly, one of Indiana's largest employers in these post-manufacturing times. Her husband got laid off this spring and, remarkably, turned the loss into an opportunity by starting up his own property-management business. Which leaves her taking up the slack with the kids.

So she wasn't exactly chomping at the bit when Barack Obama's campaign called looking for volunteers this fall. At least not until they mentioned her passion: cooking. "They started running off the gamut of things they need help with, and they got to food," said Middlebrook. "I said, hold it right there!"

She whipped up a double-meat spaghetti bake and took it down to the campaign office in her community on Indianapolis' outskirts—one of 44 posts Obama set up to take a state that hasn't gone Democrat since Lyndon Johnson. Next thing Middlebrook knew, she was feeding volunteers dinner every Monday night.

"I think we're gonna look back and say, wow, this is what changed the nation. And I was able to do something," she says, "even if it's as small as feeding people."

It's undeniable that Nov. 4, 2008 was an epochal moment for America. But at what turning point have we arrived? And who brought us here? What was billed as the year of the hockey mom has instead been quietly dominated by stovetop revolutionaries like Victoria Middlebrook. In Indiana, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and scores of places where black Americans have been systematically drummed out of the political process since the nation's inception, a new citizenship erupted in 2008—and those citizens made political pigs fly.

Commentators of all political stripes have gushed over the Obama campaign's tactical skill—its fundraising prowess, its Web savvy, its expansive ground game and aggressive posture on GOP turf. All were surely keys to his remarkable victory. Still, something more fundamental happened this election season—and something far more momentous than the falling of the White House color bar.

As my friend and Color Of Change deputy director Andre Banks put it, "This year, we've seen that overwhelming numbers of black Americans are not just interested in change, they are ready to fight for it."

So the central question of the Obama era is not what a black president says about American culture. The real question is whether this year's explosion of participatory democracy will revolutionize American politics in a way that makes the promise of Obama's presidency real.

What happened is as clear as the history it made. More Americans voted than ever, driving the highest turnout percentage in generations. By all indications, black turnout was particularly stunning. Early voting returns indicated where things were headed—more than a third of early voters in Georgia were black. Both then and on Election Day, those voters stood unfazed in lines that stretched long enough to evoke memories of South Africa's democratic transition. That early energy carried over into Election Day. On the south side of Richmond, where I spent Election Night, voters stood—cheerfully—for more than three hours in the rain.