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 January, 2009


 Looking Ahead to the Inauguration of Barack Obama

Two Celebrations

I celebrated twice on election night. One celebration had little to do with the other. Yet, they took place only a few seconds apart. At precisely 11 o’clock, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, standing beside a screen-sized graphic containing that, now familiar, smiling face of Barack Obama, announced history had been made: “CNN can now project that Barack Obama, 47 years old, will become the President-elect of the United States.“

Those words ignited my second celebration. Something I shared with 66 million Americans. It was a moment that had been preceded by my first celebration. The one in which Blitzer announced (at 10:58) that Obama had won Virginia.

Virginia? A Democratic presidential candidate hadn’t won that state since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 victory.

That announcement produced a private celebration. Not for Obama, but for a man about whom I knew very little. In fact, I never knew he existed until a few days before November 4th.

Yet, I felt deeply that Obama’s 232,136 vote victory in Virginia was that man’s victory too.

His name was Mortimer M. Marshall. While researching old newspapers, I came across his name in an article written on June 10th, 1964. “Richmond Voters Elect a Negro City Councilman,” was the front page headline that day in the Progress-Index of Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Hopewell, Virginia.

Richmond, the article said, had just elected only the second “Negro” to its city council during the 20th century.

That had certainly been a step forward for the capital of Virginia, and of course, the once capital of the Confederate States of America.

Yet, at the bottom of that article I came across that name – Mortimer M. Marshall. He was a “Negro” funeral director who’d been elected to city council in the tiny town of Culpeper, Va. – but he’d been disqualified for being “delinquent in paying his poll taxes.”

Poll taxes? They had been used as an instrument of official racism in 11 southern states since Reconstruction. Simply, if you didn’t pay your poll taxes (most poor black voters couldn’t afford to), you couldn’t vote or win an elective office.

Despite the 24th Amendment, which had been ratified in early 1964, and which outlawed such official forms of racism in federal elections, Virginia was among the five states that still maintained them for their state and local elections.

It would take a U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Harper vs. The Virginia Board of Education) in 1966 to completely make poll taxes of any kind unconstitutional.

But that had come too late. Marshall had been a community leader, a successful businessman and a family man who’d been deprived of his right to sit on his town’s city council.

He’d been unable to avoid the relentless grip of official racism – no matter who said it should end.

At shortly before 11 o’clock on November 4th, 2008, Mortimer M. Marshall’s score had finally been settled. Virginia went for Obama.
Racism, though not rendered extinct, had been dealt a mighty blow.

I felt relief. A few days after the election, I even felt compelled to try to find that man Marshall. I wanted to tell him that on election night – somebody who didn’t even know him wanted to let him know that Obama’s victory was also his.

I never made contact with him. His son, Mortimer Marshall, Jr. told me his father had died in 1979 at the age of 94 – and long before a victory such as Obama’s could even have been imaged.

Mortimer M. Marshall, Jr. must have wondered why some stranger from Pennsylvania would seek out his father to congratulate him, when he hadn’t run for president.

Yet, something tells me he understood that I would have wanted to share Obama’s victory with my father (who died a number of years ago at the age of 95) if he had lived to see Wolf Blitzer’s announcements that night. That his father, of the same generation, who’d faced the same kinds of indignities, would have been a worthy surrogate for mine.

The younger Marshall, who himself is a successful architect, is a lifelong Democrat. He, too, celebrated the election results.
We discussed the importance of that night - to him, to me, to the country - and to the memories of our fathers.

Tomorrow (Tuesday), at the moment he raises his right hand and we can officially call him President Barack Obama when he lowers it, I will be thinking about my father, Mortimer M. Marshall - and I will be able to quietly – no loudly celebrate again.

Edward A. Owens of Uniontown is Webmaster of “Red Raider Nation: Where Champions Live.” E-mail him at freedoms@bellatlantic.net