Local

Can black president unite the country?

A man of color -- that color black -- has been elected president.

Yet today in Rock Hill, you can join an Elks Club that is almost all white, or an Elks Club that is almost all black.

Or countless other social organizations that are almost all white or black.

You can find churches that have some mix to congregations, yet anybody can find a church today that is almost, if not completely, all white or all black.

Peek into a school lunchroom where students can choose where they want to sit. Look into the stands at a high school football game or basketball game and see if there are sections of blacks sitting together and whites sitting together.

It is undeniable what you see.

Your eyesight doesn't mean forced segregation, but it sure seems like we sometimes choose to do it ourselves.

But some people, smart, will say that in a free country, all can worship where they want, sit where they want, because it's a choice. Social choices come from our comfort zones, personal connections, families. High schoolers sit with friends, not colors, they will say, and they're telling the truth.

Yet you can look at the voting precincts in York County and see precincts that voted more than 14 to 1, more than 10 to 1, for Barack Obama. Some in other areas voted 2 to 1, 3 to 1, or more, for McCain. Voting precincts are based on where somebody lives. No doubt neighborhoods show full integration hasn't happened. We can live where we want, sure, but do we?

I asked two of the smartest men I know if Obama can change a country that clearly has some political unity -- at least 40 percent of the people who voted for Obama were white -- into a socially unified country.

Both said, "I hope so."

But it will take all of us -- no matter what we look like.

Dr. Horace Goggins, a retired dentist now 79 years old, was the first black person ever to run for the Rock Hill school board. He lost by about a million votes. He was an officer with the NAACP during the integration of schools. Then his former wife was the first black woman ever elected to the South Carolina Legislature. He knows more than a little bit about change.

"My life is exactly two halves: the first during segregation and discrimination, when almost everything we did was separate," Goggins said. "School. Commerce. Life."

That was when the black Elks, and black Veterans of Foreign Wars and other black social organizations came about.

But the second half of Goggins' life has seen the mingling of black and white in school, business, labor, the integration of some social organizations. But Goggins said he still belongs to that black Elks Club.

"I have said this for years, and I read this in Newsweek not too long ago, that African-Americans have integrated publicly, but not privately," Goggins said. "We work side by side during the day, but aren't side by side at social gatherings at night nearly as much. We aren't side by side nearly as much at church."

Maybe, Goggins said, Obama's election can spur changes in how we all decide who to be side by side with more often.

Father John Guiliani, so many years at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Fort Mill, said Obama's election has the potential to unite the country. Not just unite race, but unite morale that transcends race and appeals to all.

"The message of Obama was hope," Guiliani said.

I asked Guiliani if church isn't also a place where the message is hope and he said quickly, "I would hope so."

Guiliani held a mass at 8 a.m. Friday. In that mass, he prayed for the president-elect. He prayed that Obama can "unite the country." Obama's race never came up in that conversation with God.

"Some are not happy. But Mr. Obama is our president," Guiliani said. "We have a new leader now. A uniter."

Obama's election might be the first step toward unity, Goggins said, and a society with fewer labels and more togetherness. Goggins' 1968 voter registration card states he is black. His new card does not. His driver's license when he bought his 1963 Comet that he still drives said he was black. His license now has no race on it.

"I didn't think I'd live long enough to see what happened this week," Goggins said. "When I was in grammar school, I was called 'colored.' When I was in high school, I was called a 'Negro.' In the 1960s I became 'black.' Then around the late 1990s, I was called an 'African-American.' I always just called myself an American."

Guiliani the priest said change comes from all of us, regardless of race. Goggins, the dentist pushing 80, said changes don't happen overnight. Changes that last rarely do.

"Maybe, hopefully, my life will end up in thirds," Goggins said. "The beginning, segregation. The second, integration. And the third and final chapter, unification."

  Comments