Video: Awe and a little disbelief

By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
updated 10/31/2008 11:04:44 AM ET 2008-10-31T15:04:44

Color Henry McGee Jr. amazed.

A professor of law for 40 years who has spent a lifetime on the cutting edge of efforts to integrate the African-American community into mainstream U.S. society, McGee, 75, has seen lots of progress. But he never dared to believe he would see a black person in the White House.

“I wouldn’t have even thought of it and I’m pretty imaginative,” he said of the prospect that Sen. Barack Obama, with a substantial lead in many national polls and in key battleground states, could be elected president. “There was totally a situation of racial apartheid in the United States when I graduated from college. Just in one person’s lifetime … the country has traveled centuries.”

Of all the elements of American society that have celebrated Obama’s candidacy, it is a profoundly poignant moment for older African-Americans, regardless of whether they agree with the Illinois senator’s politics. But for many of them, the biggest emotion will remain disbelief unless and until they see Obama take the oath of office.

“I really do not believe what is going on,” said Beverly J. Kelly, 77. “Three-hundred years ago we were not even a human being. We were like a cow or something that could be bought and sold.”

“I didn’t think it would ever be possible, but all you can do is hope and pray,” echoed John Kelsie, 88, a 52-year member of Seattle’s storied Mount Zion Baptist Church.

McGee, Kelly and Kelsie all live in Washington state’s King County, whose name honors slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. While the county seat of Seattle was noted for racial tolerance in the days when African-Americans were a small minority, racism became more pronounced in the city as the black population grew rapidly during World War II when area defense industries clamored for more workers.

The city was a hotbed of civil rights work during the ’60s and ’70s, with activists making major strides toward integration and acceptance of African-Americans in schools, trade unions and social clubs. Seattle elected a black mayor in 1989 and King County’s top elected official today is an African-American.

A sense of wonder
Still, a sense of wonder at Obama’s rendezvous with history remains common among members of the African-American community who were born when lynching was still common in the South, when Major League Baseball, the U.S. armed forces and the vast majority of American public schools were segregated. They and fellow members of their generation were already teens and adults by the time of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision and Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, which occurred five years before Obama was born. Many of them were parents before they saw African-Americans serve on the Supreme Court and in the Cabinet, and grandparents long before the nation had its first black governor in 1990.

McGee has broken plenty of race barriers himself in a career that has taken him around the globe to research, write and teach. He was the first African-American president of a dorm at Northwestern University and the first to win election to the student governing board. He was one of the first black professors to win tenure at UCLA, where he taught law for 25 years before leaving in 1994, and the first at Seattle University, where he currently teaches classes on environmental and housing law. Along the way, he attained degrees from Northwestern, DePaul and Columbia, won two Fulbright fellowships and became an accomplished violinist who still plays with the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I was always in that situation of being at the edge of the frontier between African-American society and mainstream America,” McGee said. Although he began his professional life as a prosecutor and then private attorney in his native Chicago, he felt a call to public service and the academic world during what he refers to as the “integration mania” of the late 1960s and early ’70s. In a sense, he was following in the footsteps of his father, who as Chicago postmaster was the first African-American to run a major U.S. postal facility.

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Shifting directions
McGee helped register voters in Mississippi, then ran legal outreach and research programs through the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity and University of Chicago Law School.

“It was in the interests of the country to racially integrate and I felt an obligation to do it, if it could be done,” he said. “The next phase in racial integration was for white students to have black teachers.” So McGee, who “never had a black teacher in my life,” began his four decades behind the lectern, first at Ohio State University, then in the UCLA post.

Now in his 15th year on the Seattle University faculty, McGee shows no signs of slowing down. His pleasant but pointed questioning of students about their cases keeps them on their toes in the classroom. And his high energy keeps them literally running through the streets of Seattle to stay up with him on field trips to affordable housing projects and other institutions related to their studies.

Another surprise, not so pleasant
Despite the pleasant surprise of Obama’s nomination, McGee said he has been caught off guard by the racial intolerance that has surfaced during the campaign. “I had not realized there were that many people in the country who were that bigoted against African-Americans,” he said.

McGee describes his personal exposure to bias as limited in comparison with some others because “my parents sheltered me from the rough edges of racism.” Still, he was chased and had rocks thrown at him in various parts of Chicago, was unable to get job interviews and was refused service in “whites only” restaurants.

The racially polarizing experience that stuck with him the most, however, was when he visited relatives in Hot Springs, Ark., as a boy of 13. On an outing in town, he held a door for a white woman and was chastised for going out of his way to help someone who was seen as a member of the oppressor race. “I thought it was so incongruous and odd,” he said. “In the South, black people were bitter.”

The current campaign has shown him that “in the deepest bowels of the country there remains a reservoir of bigotry and racial hatred,” McGee said. “Nonetheless, that’s dwarfed, it seems to me, by people of good will. And the younger they are, the more likely they are to be that way, and that’s real hope. “

Beverly Kelly’s experiences have led her to the same conclusion.

Growing up in Seattle, she attended Garfield High School, which in the 1940s had a student body that was about one-third white, one-third black and one-third Asian. “We didn’t know until after we got out of high school that there was any racism,” she said. Then, however, she was refused service at some restaurants and theaters and told by one employer: “We don’t hire Negroes.”

After obtaining a degree from the University of Washington in 1954 and a teaching credential, she was initially only able to find domestic work in a gated white neighborhood. Within a few years, however, she became one of the first black public school teachers in Seattle. On her first day, “As I walked up the steps to the school, the principal met me at the top and said, ‘If it was up to me I wouldn’t have hired you. I didn’t want any black teachers.’”

An unwelcome gift
In the 1960s, when she and her husband moved across Lake Washington to the well-heeled and lily white suburb of Bellevue, their new neighbors took up a collection for the family. “They got $2,500,” she said, “and they brought it to us and offered it to us not to move in!” Now, after 40 years of living among them, making friendships, sharing triumphs and disappointments, she has concluded, “These people are the nicest people in the world. My kids grew up in their houses. They could not have been nicer.”

Kelly, who remains well-known in the Seattle education community for her work as a volunteer reader and storyteller in the schools, believes that this one-on-one interaction is the level at which true progress has been made in improving race relations in the United States. Across much of the nation today, she said, “We don’t think in terms of black and white. Most of our kids have grown up with all kinds of races.

“I pity white people if you haven’t opened up and connected with a person of a different race. I have much more in common with a lot of white people than I do with black people.”

‘A magnificent role model’
Both Kelly and McGee said that nothing would serve as a better affirmation for African-Americans than an Obama presidency. “Obama will be a magnificent role model for people of every race in the United States,” McGee said. “And now we can really say that anyone can be president if he wins, and we couldn’t have said that before. Until he’s elected, as of now, we cannot say that.”

Kelly pointed out that some of the trouble she has in believing Obama will actually be elected lies in his personal story “It’s almost like a film script that somebody wrote to end up like an inspiration," she said. “Whoever would have thought that a white woman from Kansas would get together with a guy from African and produce this man?"

McGee said an Obama victory would send a positive message to the rest of the world, which, he pointed out, is mostly non-Caucasian. However, he added, “The degree that it will improve race relations is an unknown question.”

In some ways, they said, Michelle Obama as first lady would be an even richer icon. “She’s not half-white,” said Kelly. “She’s for real black, dark black. … It’s already changed me. … She is someone you can look at and know that it’s OK to be who you are. It’s OK to be who God made you.”

McGee’s doubts about Obama’s prospects lessened with the Republicans’ selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as their vice-presidential nominee. While McGee finds Sen. John McCain a reasonable candidate for president, he believes that McCain’s “fighter pilot decision” to appease his conservative base with Palin turned many voters to Obama.

“If McCain can win with a vice president like that, it will tell us a lot about the race situation in the United States,” McGee said.

'Divinely inspired'
But if American voters choose Obama, said Kelly, “That this country that came from slavery is able to elect a black man president, I find it just incredible, almost divinely inspired. That’s why I think it is impossible.”

Mount Zion Baptist Church
John Kelsie

Have a little faith, counsels John Kelsie. A deeply religious man who has served as caretaker of Mount Zion for more than 40 years while he also pursued a career in the city’s engineering department, Kelsie loves to share metaphors about the mysterious powers of an abiding conviction in a higher power. For him, it is God, “who created me.”

Kelsie, who has seen 16 American presidents come and go, admits that for much of his life, it never occurred to him that a black person could be elected to the nation’s highest office. “My upbringing was so tough that I never thought there would be a day that I would even be in my own house.”

Now, however, when it comes to Obama, “My nerves are beginning to quiet down. It’s time for a change and there’s going to be a change. The Bible says the top will go to the bottom and bottom will go to the top.”

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