BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The day Condoleezza Rice's smiling visage graced the front pages of both daily newspapers here this week should have been, by all rights, a day of celebration at Westminster Presbyterian Church.
President-elect George W. Bush had just named Rice his national security advisor. People here remember her as the girl who played inside the church where both her father and grandfather served as pastors. Now "Condi" is about to become one of the most powerful black women in American history.
So how to explain the gloom on the face of the current pastor, William T. Jones, when asked to comment about the local girl who made good?
"Yeah, she's intelligent," Jones offered grudgingly. But what about the election that made Bush president in the first place? What about all those students who tried to vote at Florida A&M--a traditionally black college--only to be turned away? And what about the U.S. Supreme Court?
"Brother, a lot of people have lost faith in that court," the pastor said. "What they did just wasn't fair."
Even here in Birmingham, a city with family ties to both of Bush's most prominent black appointees--Rice and secretary of State-designate Colin L. Powell--many African Americans have a sick feeling in their stomach about a Bush presidency.
For more than a month, they've been hearing stories about election day shenanigans--dark tales about missing ballot boxes and suspicious highway checkpoints--all seemingly part of an effort to keep blacks from voting for Al Gore.
Throw in the very public action of the U.S. Supreme Court--compared by some to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision that returned a slave to his master--and the 2000 election adds up to an injustice of historic proportions in the eyes of many blacks.
Bush Meets With Black Ministers
In a conciliatory gesture, Bush met with black ministers Wednesday in Austin, Texas, as part of a summit with religious leaders. Among those attending were the Rev. Floyd Flake of Queens, N.Y., a former Democratic congressman and a strong Gore backer.
Gore won nine of every 10 black votes nationwide in last month's election, according to exit polls. Whites leaned strongly toward Bush.
And last week, a poll by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center found that 90% of African Americans thought the results were unfair, compared with 60% for whites. The same poll found that 77% of black voters believe Bush is undeserving of the presidency, compared with 37% of the electorate as a whole.
"There are two lessons here," said professor Tom Patterson, director of the Vanishing Voter Project, a Harvard-based program to monitor the American electorate. "The first is that every vote counts. And the second is that some votes don't count at all."
That mixed message could translate into lower turnout of black and other minority voters in the next election, Patterson said. "A third of African American voters say they are angry and have less intention to vote for president in 2004," he said. "They are frustrated, resentful and feel they have little or no impact on the election outcome."
The result of this year's chaotic election has been an especially hard pill to swallow in Southern cities like Birmingham, where blacks have paid with blood for the right to enjoy the privileges of their citizenship.
"For somebody in the year 2000 to come up and say your vote doesn't count is a slap in the face," said 51-year-old Eugene Jones, owner of the Talk of the Town barbershop here. "I feel kind of disappointed in the system right now."
As a teenager, Jones heard civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred L. Shuttlesworth speak at his high school, urging resistance to segregation. A few blocks away from his shop is the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls were killed in an infamous 1963 bombing. (Rice was a schoolmate of one of the victims.) Two men named as suspects in the case lived as free men for 37 years until being charged in the case last May.
Now, after a month of listening to the television in his shop drone with news of election irregularities in Florida, Jones sees another conspiracy at work. Powerful men are working behind the scenes, he says, to deprive a people of their right to vote.
"Most white Americans don't see the connections," he said. "Most black people who come to this barbershop, they see the game."
Jones' 27-year-old assistant, Shah Jahan Smith, chimed in with one of the rumors he's heard while cutting hair, "stories of folks eating ballots, swallowing ballots" so they wouldn't be counted.
"And state troopers stopping folks so they can't go to the polls," Jones added. "I thought that was crazy."