A lift to black voters in more ways than one

People were floating in and out, and the phones rang at a steady clip. It was a busy day at the offices of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. One driver had just left to pick up a voter, but now a couple of women needed a ride to the polls in east Durham.

The Committee, as it is known, has been getting black people to the polls “for a lot of years,” said Gwendolyn Suitt, 67, a retired high school guidance counselor; since before she moved to Durham, and that was in 1963. The organization was founded in the 1930s, when a black man had a better chance of being lynched than being president.

Barack Obama’s history-making bid for the White House in 2008 generated a huge turnout among North Carolina’s black voters, who make up a little more than one-fifth of the state’s electorate. In 2008, almost three-quarters of black voters in North Carolina went to the polls, helping Obama beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the state by just 14,000 votes.

On Tuesday, the Committee was doing everything it could to keep North Carolina blue.

“Can you get this lady right here?” one volunteer asked Arnold Dennis, who had just walked in offering to drive. “She votes at Y.E. Smith Elementary Museum School.”

Dennis, 65, who does mentoring with the Juvenile Justice Institute at North Carolina Central University, wrote down directions and set out.

He called the election “a turning point.” The novelty of Obama has worn off, he said, and the country has to grapple with differing ideas about who we are and who we want to be.

“I don’t want to see that spirit leave,” he said, “and power go to people who just look through us like we’re invisible.”

Dennis pulled up, and Sonya McQuaig and Renita Suitt, both hairdressers, hopped into his car. McQuaig wanted to vote early, she said, but her mother is disabled, and she was busy caring for her. That’s why she wants Obama to stay in office — health care.

“Hopefully, we’ll be partying tonight,” McQuaig told Dennis after they’d voted and he’d driven them home. He waved and headed back to Durham, back to the Committee, back to pick up more black people to take to the polls.

Lonnae O’Neal Parker

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