The Obama effect 

Visions of an increasingly colorblind Arkansas.

YES WE DID: An Obama supporter.
  • YES WE DID: An Obama supporter.

History, of course, will record Nov. 4, 2008, as a watershed moment in the United States. But if you happened to be riding in a particular van to and from Nixa, Mo., on the next-to-the-last weekend in October, you would have gotten a sneak preview of what Barack Obama's election could mean for Arkansas race relations.

As the white and black Sheree´ Williamses of the state begin to step forward into positions of power, Arkansans may not have to endure much longer the spectacle of middle-aged whites and blacks at school board meetings armed with antennae as big as satellite dishes scouring the room for a racial meaning to whatever topic is at hand.

It is not necessarily the way people want to conduct the people's business, but for those of us over a certain age, this instinct to see life through a racial lens comes with the territory. Arguably, given our history, it could not be otherwise. White supremacy has defined the state's politics since slavery. Through every era many of us have lugged the baggage of race, but we seem loath to put it down.

As our 30-year-old “team leader,” Williams' volunteer job in the Arkansas Obama campaign that Saturday morning was to transport to Nixa volunteers who had agreed to canvass in Missouri, a “battleground” state, and then deliver us back to the North Little Rock headquarters Sunday night. Seated up front with Williams was a black female student at Philander Smith. In the back were four white males, three of us over 40, two of us in our 60s. Though the scenario was hardly “Driving Mr. Daisy,” the son of Temple and Jake Stockley, who were members of the 1948 openly white supremacist “Dixiecrat” Party, right away felt comfortable enough with his team leader to share this information about his parents. For her part, Williams would eventually tell me enough of her life history to help me understand the path she has taken to becoming a dedicated supporter of Barack Obama.

Not surprisingly, both her grandmothers had been domestics for whites in Little Rock. Her mother, Valerie Peterson, who graduated from Central in 1974, had endured harassment from whites but had succeeded in becoming the first black High Stepper at Central. In 1974, Williams' mother, who became an LPN, married Dowayne Peterson Sr., who had grown up in extreme poverty in east Little Rock.

Williams was in the fifth grade when the family moved from a mixed neighborhood off Barrow Road to a house on Pleasant Forest, in a virtually all-white neighborhood. Williams said that they were moving “to better schools and a better area.” She credits her parents for teaching her to not “act white” but neither to “act black.” She was simply to be herself. As a child, Williams attended Romine and Fulbright elementary and middle schools. For two years the family lived in Kentucky and then returned to Little Rock.

Whatever problems ail the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission at the moment — and there appear to be many — Williams gives it and state Sen. Tracy Steele, former director of the commission, high marks at a critical time in her life. The 1990s are remembered as a time of violence, gangs, and drugs in Pulaski County. On March 5, 1995, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette began a three-part series that documented, among other statistics, that “about one of every 11 teen-agers in Pulaski County belongs to a gang. … The ratio in public schools could be closer to one in eight.”


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