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.
But turnout just scratches the surface. Take Vinceretta Taylor Chiles. She's a Richmond, Va. native who, like Middlebrook, had never before considered formal involvement in politics. She was outraged by the voting irregularities that plagued her area during the Democratic primary, when black precincts ran out of ballots, among other problems. So when the Old Dominion Bar Association passed around a list of volunteer opportunities this summer, she signed up to help with voter protection. "We just committed to make sure that nothing like that happened again," says Chiles, a 43-year-old criminal defense attorney. "Not on our watch."
She ended up having plenty to watch out for. Virginia had some of the most chaotic polling places in the country Tuesday. Chiles joined a team of lawyers who stood up for voters trying to navigate the melee. She helped staff Richmond's Election Protection hotline, where she took calls about problems, came up with on-the-spot solutions and dispatched teams of legal volunteers to implement them.
"We learned this from scratch," Chiles says of her newfound election law expertise. "We went through a two-day crash course." She shut down her private practice for the trip and often worked weekends and nights to make up for the time dedicated to the project. Like Middlebrook, she shrugs the sacrifice off to the arc of history. "It's what the Thurgood Marshalls had to do," she says.
This is the emotional well Obama's storied ground game tapped. Its volunteers were everywhere, acting formally and informally, making their first forays into political organizing. They were people like Theresa Borel in Indianapolis who, after watching her 13-year-old beauty salon lose half its business in the last year, turned it into a voter registration center. She signed up more than 50 voters by recruiting clients to bring in friends and family.
"I never knew how people did it," Borel says of why she hadn't been involved in previous political activism. "I thought you had to be invited."
Obama's 60s era, grassroots organizing approach—tirelessly mocked by Sarah Palin—helped people like Borel see not only that they are allowed to participate, and on their own terms, but that they must.
Much has been made of the rift between the civil rights generation and the Obama generation. But on some level, Obama represents less of a break from yesterday's black politics than a return to it. The energized black grassroots upended the black political machine this year. It took the civic reengagement of Rep. John Lewis' historic black district in Georgia to remind him that he is beholden to the neighborhoods he represents, not to the Democratic Party establishment.
The Web took personal frustration with old-school black leadership and turned it into collective action. Color of Change (for which I have worked as a consultant) got tens of thousands of members to petition the Clintons to stop race baiting. They later petitioned CBC superdelegates, demanding they vote in line with their districts, which overwhelmingly supported Obama, not Clinton. In the process, the group has watched its membership grow by 150,000 people since the primaries began.
The question is whether organizers can capitalize on this new engagement beyond the election. NAACP's new executive director Ben Jealous—the youngest person ever to lead the group, at 35—says the old civil rights war horse will start by harnessing the year's much discussed youth energy.
But as Dayo Olopade has reported here, Obama's volunteer brigade wasn't solely about young (and, implicitly, fleeting) energy. The reality is the year's citizenship explosion crossed age, gender, race and geographic lines.
Roy Smith is a 66-year-old retired autoworker. Sitting in his spacious home around the corner from Victoria Middlebrook's house, he says he's an unlikely activist and certainly has never been one before this year. I sat with him the night of Obama's 30-minute infomercial, and he was glued to his TV like he was watching the Super Bowl. Obama campaign posters crowded out the Indianapolis Colts paraphernalia that clearly once dominated his decor.
"As the election amplified, I said, 'What am I doing besides sitting up here talking the talk?'" Smith says in explaining his transformation. He asked a friend who's active in Baltimore how he could get involved. The friend connected him with an Obama staffer in his county, who went to church with Smith and slowly unloaded responsibilities on him. Before long, Smith was coordinating the area's volunteers and serving as a Democratic representative among poll workers.
"It's maybe just symbolism," he says. "But if I'm representative of what other people can do, would like to do, but can't…" He shakes his head. "I think that's hopeful, quite frankly."
And it's a hope that stretches far past presidential politics. Smith works part time as a substitute high school teacher, in a predominantly white school district. He says something has rubbed him wrong lately that hadn't bothered him as much before: He's the only black teacher at the school, and he often worries that the black students feel isolated. He met with the school leadership recently and is now lobbying them to hire a black counselor.
If all of the triumphant rhetoric about Barack Obama's ascendance to the White House is to be more than self-congratulatory talk, if Nov. 4, 2008, truly marks a new era in American life, it will be because the Obama campaign spawned just this sort of hyper-local, interpersonal activism. It won't just be because America elected a black president; it'll be because a legion of small-d democrats reclaimed their citizenship in 2008.
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.