By Krissah Williams Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008
CANTON, Miss. -- The presidential campaign is as close as it will ever be to Robert Lawson's wood-frame house, but he's not the least bit impressed. Resting in the shade of his screened porch in front of an old car junkyard, he said the candidates who were 150 miles away in Oxford for the first presidential debate Friday night may as well have been 150,000 miles from his world of broken-down cars and shuttered small business.
"They are not concerned about Canton," said Lawson, 53, sipping ice water and taking drags on a cigarette. "Most people are fed up with promises that are never kept. They promise this, they promise that. . . . I listen at them bickering at one another, and I get fed up and say to myself, 'Ain't either one of you going to get up there and do anything you saying.' "
Despite an intense interest in this year's presidential election that has led to a surge in new registrants, there remain pockets of Americans who are deeply skeptical of the candidates and uninterested in participating. Their detachment is bred of years of disappointment and the pervasive feeling that no matter who wins, little in their lives will change.
That disconnection is particularly stark in a place such as Canton, which, on the face of it, should be enthusiastically behind the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama.
Though Canton is 80 percent black and was once a battleground of the civil rights movement, there is considerable ambivalence here about the chance to elect the nation's first African American president. There's a hardened sense among many in this town of 13,000 that Obama does not know about and could not understand their daily problems. Others know a black man is running but can't quite remember his name. Some are excited by Obama's candidacy but have never voted, cannot recall the last time they went to the polls, or have no idea how or where to register.
Even those who vote consistently get where their neighbors are coming from. "They feel like the message down here isn't being delivered to the top," said Robert C.O. Chinn Jr., a lifelong Canton resident, chair of the Madison County Democratic Party and the only person in town to put up an Obama campaign sign. "They feel like the people at the top are game players. They aren't taking care of the needs."
Early on, the Obama campaign held up Mississippi as an example of a state where a huge black turnout -- 37 percent of the population is African American -- could drive an unexpected victory. But those hopes faded quickly, and the deep-rooted doubt that some here have suggests the challenge for Obama in other states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, where the Democrat is counting on a swell of African American support to put him over the top.
In Canton, the lack of connection stems from the hard realities of life that have remained unchanged whether a Democrat or a Republican was in the White House -- median incomes of $24,000, according to the most recent census figures, a low-achieving school system and few job opportunities.
Canton markets itself as the movie capital of Mississippi -- "A Time to Kill" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" were filmed here -- and the town is trying to attract more. Five years ago, Nissan opened a billion-dollar plant to build cars and trucks on the outskirts of Canton. It employs 3,700, but many residents said they have felt little impact. Nissan donated money and computers to local schools but requires a high school diploma for most jobs, disqualifying many residents in a place where nearly half of all high school students drop out.
There are small banners on the light posts leading into town that read "Rich History, Bright Future," but half a mile from the town's stately square, at the Washco Laundromat, Jennifer Blackmon, 20, said she has been unable to find work for over a year and survives on babysitting money. Blackmon is registered and plans to vote for Obama but said that most of her friends won't bother.
Beyond race, they find little in common with the senator from Illinois, with his Ivy League education and Hawaii childhood. To them, Obama, like Sen. John McCain, sounds just like all the other politicians who have promised to improve their lot but have not.
"The simple fact is they are on TV talking about what they are going to do, but nobody is doing what they say they are going to do," Blackmon said. "That's why nobody is voting."
Three washers away in the hot, busy laundromat, Robbie Savage, 37, put a load of clothes and seven quarters in a washing machine. Savage, who is white and voted for President Bush in 2004, said she hadn't bothered to change her voter registration from Alabama, where she lived four years ago.
"I don't think either of them know what's going on here," she said. "They need to come here and find out."
What's going on, Savage said, is her neighbor, who drove a backhoe for Nissan, was laid off two weeks ago. Her husband lost his logging job and had to work for less money laying pipe. Savage cleans homes and does landscaping for families in Madison, a wealthier community 25 minutes away. She heard the talk in Washington about lowering gas prices, but so far as she can tell, that's all it ended up as -- talk.
"When the politicians say they are going to do something, they need to do it and show the people," Savage said.
LaShayla Allen, 31, a preschool teacher, said she sees the malaise among young people, who in Canton have only a sparsely equipped Boys & Girls Club to occupy their time. With little else to do, they hang out in the streets.
"They don't really have hope to do better," she said. "Canton is all they see. . . . They see that their mother didn't graduate, so they don't graduate. My momma doesn't vote, so I'm not going to vote."
Allen said she will vote for Obama, but after watching the debate Friday night, she said neither candidate spoke to what concerns most folks in Canton, where gasoline cost $3.68 a gallon last week.
"I don't think they touched on what's happening with the economy now," she said. "When they get elected, what are some hands-on things they will do?"
After the first service at Greater Faith Calvary Pentecostal Church, Keith Warfield, a bail bondsman and associate minister, said that distrust of the political process has even seeped into the church pews. It is the reason his wife, LaTasha, refuses to vote.
"She believes they are going to do what's best for Washington, not what's best for the people. Most people are pretty much numb to politicians and their lies after being lied to so many times," said Warfield, who did not watch the first presidential debate but plans to vote for Obama. "I don't know if McCain or Obama can fix what's messed up now. A lot of issues, if God doesn't intervene, it can't be fixed."
That kind of pessimism is a long way from the sense of possibility many older residents remember feeling from the days of the civil rights movement, when Canton was a focus of the Mississippi Freedom Summer movement that inspired and registered thousands of black voters and got them to the polls.
Chinn, the Democratic Party chairman, maintains hope that blacks will return to that level of engagement. It is a long shot, he acknowledges, but it is possible with greatly increased black voter turnout and some support from whites to win Madison County for Obama. It requires rousing the unregistered voters in Canton in the next week and giving the registered ones a reason to trust again and turnout.
"You get a feeling every 300 or 400 years," Chinn said, "that you might get a blessing."