Gerri Hall, a lifelong Democrat who grew up poor in Mississippi, has made… (Jeffrey Sauger, Special…)
Reporting from Flint, Mich. — Growing up poor and black in Mississippi, Gerri Hall learned there was a meanness in the world, a set of laws and customs aimed at people like her, which her mother tried to explain once when they were forced to stand aside and let a white lady use the sidewalk.
"Honey," Hall remembers her mother saying, "that's just the way it is in Mississippi."
But there was also love and pride and determination in rural Greenwood, along with a belief that things could and would eventually change — and the way to change them was within her grasp.
"In order to make a difference," Hall says her father often told her, "you've got to understand politics and get involved."
Fifty years later, there is a black man in the White House and Hall is firmly rooted in the middle class, with a nice home in a leafy neighborhood, a pension from her 30-year job at General Motors and enough savings to help her grown son buy a starter place of his own.
"Things have definitely gotten better," she allows, "in terms of tolerance and coexistence and people getting along."
Hall is not, however, satisfied. For the next year, she has one overriding goal: to see that President Obama wins a second term, to show his victory was no fluke, to silence his critics and give him more time to implement the policies she sees thwarted, heedlessly and incessantly, by his Republican foes.
Like many black Americans, Hall, 60, looks at the president and sees a reflection of herself: joys and triumphs but also challenges and adversity, a good part of it, she suggests, owing to the color of his skin. "When we look at President Obama, we can relate to what he's experiencing because of the experiences in our own backgrounds," Hall says over lunch at an Irish-themed restaurant, where she stands out as one of the few black patrons.
The sentiment may explain why Obama still enjoys commanding support among African Americans, even though blacks have suffered the worst of the deep recession that soured so many others on the incumbent.
"He came from where the majority of minorities came from, from meager beginnings," says Reggie Smith, a local head of the United Auto Workers union, who laughingly recalls how he, like Obama, once drove a car with a rusted hole in the floor. "He can relate like no other president before, and that's what keeps him strong in the African American community."
Obama won 95% of the black vote in his first presidential race and will likely match that next year. The question is whether 2008's record black turnout can be repeated, or even exceeded, now that the heady days are long gone. Even Obama, speaking this fall in Los Angeles, conceded his reelection bid "will not be as sexy" as his first run.
But Hall, who keeps a grinning photo of the president dangling from her key chain, is adamant Obama will surpass that performance. "We're not just saying" — here she adopts a mincing tone — 'Oh, let's elect an African American president.' We already have a black president. What we need to do is give him support so he can work his plan."
A lifelong Democrat, Hall is vice chairwoman of the local party and its black caucus, a fixture in Flint politics and a field marshal in the huge get-out-the-vote operation Obama is building in Michigan, a state vital to his reelection hopes.
She is a regular at senior centers, block meetings and community events — "If there's 15 Democrats in a room, Gerri will be one of them," says local state Sen. John Gleason — talking up the importance of voting and, lately, reelecting the president. She stays relentlessly on message in a way some candidates might envy. When a neighbor and Obama backer says others in the black community may be somewhat disappointed — "It turns out he doesn't walk on water" — Hall leaps in. "Now, you know," she says, friendly but firmly, "if he didn't have Congress blocking him, things would be a whole lot better."
For Hall, reelecting Obama is more than a political mission. It is personal as well, a debt repaid to her mother and father, a down payment for her son and granddaughter. She takes no pay. A voice inside says, "This is what you need to do, Gerri, whether you're paid or not."
The statistics are grim. The poverty rate for African American children has increased under Obama, along with black joblessness. Nationally, black unemployment was 15.5% in November, almost twice the overall rate. For black teenagers it was just under 40%.
Even so, African Americans remain far more upbeat than the rest of the country. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll done with theGrio.com, a black-oriented website, found that 49% of African Americans felt the country was on the right track, compared with nearly 3 in 4 overall who felt otherwise. Most African Americans blamed congressional Republicans, rather than Obama, for the country's economic ills.