It was "Hot Ice" night at Sugar Hill Lounge in Atlanta's Underground entertainment district, but the usual Saturday offering of live R&B and reggae music gave way to a more urgent purpose: Drumming up black voter turnout for today's Georgia's presidential primary.
Billed as a non-partisan, multi-generational Wake Up Call/Town Hall Party for Hope, Change and Empowerment, it was nonetheless pretty clear early on that it would be a Barack Obama kind of evening. The opening act, 22-year-old Memphis singer Michaelyn Oby concluded her set with an impassioned plea for her generation to turn out Tuesday and a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."
"I see a new dawn on the horizon," declared Oby, a recent Lemoyne-Owens College graduate. "Young people are standing up today. No longer does history seem so far away." For his part, long-time activist Joe Beasley, 71, the head of Georgia's Rainbow Coalition, wondered what all the talk of a generation gap is all about. "I'm an Obama man all the way," he said. "I'm so delighted at 71 to be here. I think we're in good hands. This idea of the old guard holding on, I dismiss out of hand. People who don't like us would love to get us to fight" across generations.
One of the moderators, radio talk show host Shelley Wynter, a Republican who styles his show the "Right Side," reiterated his unabashed support for the Illinois senator who is locked in a battle for Georgia's 103 Democratic delegates with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Instead of the usual selection of music videos, Sugar Hill's giant TV screens played silent footage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as two sets of panelists, made up of activists and state and local politicians, spoke for more than two-hours in a free-flowing exchange
The promoters had touted the appearance of Atlanta rapper Lil' Scrappy alongside civil rights lion the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery. Lil' Scrappy did not appear, but Lowery, 86, joined in the lively give-and take. "Voting is not about who the system is. It's about who you are," Lowery told the small gathering of people, mostly in their twenties and thirties. "Voting is a measure of your character. The person who does not vote is a sorry individual." The crowd of about 40 whooped and applauded. Lowery's was joined by younger activists such as Markel Hutchins, 30, who gained prominence last year when he championed the cause of a 92-year-old African American woman killed in a botched police raid.
The gathering demonstrated how the Obama campaign has energized an important new voting bloc. It was sponsored by PowerPAC, a non-profit political advocacy group, focused on mobilizing under-represented people for the 2008 elections in eight African-American, vote-rich states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina).
"I see a burst of energy by young people because they have been excited by Barack Obama," Lowery said.
The battle for support from influential African American Democrats has many usual allies lined up in different camps. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin has endorsed Obama. Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young is backing Clinton, and so is Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights hero. Lowery is backing Obama. The two continued a debate begun on the PBS Newshour in dueling op-ed pieces in the Sunday Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper. (Lowery argued that Obama would "deliver" African Americans from the "old guard," while Lewis argued that the country needs a leader "with experience.")
Some early voting polls had long lines last week, with more than 180,000 early votes cast before the advanced voting ended on Friday. A very large turnout on is expected today, and more than just Obama's and Clinton's futures may be decided. Hutchins, the young civil rights leader, announced at Sugar Hill that he was considering running against Rep. Lewis, the popular incumbent and veteran of the bloody Selma voting rights march. The congressman's backing of Hillary Clinton has convinced some younger leaders like Hutchins that it might be time for a change. "I've tried to give my life in public service as a private citizen and now I think it's time for me to consider doing that as a public official," Hutchins said.
At the end of the two-hour forum-turned-Obama-pep-rally, DJ Mike eventually turned up the music from his perch so the regulars could get their groove on. But not before reminding them once more of their civic duty. "Hope you had a good time at the forum," he said. "Get out there and vote on Super Tuesday."
Vern E. Smith is a contributor for The Root.