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Week of 9.1.06

Personal Essay: Democracy in the Deep South

By NOW Field Producer Khadijah White

Very early on the morning of August 26th, my bright red pickup (the only rental left) and I hurtled down one of Georgia's major highways. I was headed to Plains, a small town about three hours outside of Atlanta, to do research on how state laws may block eligible people from voting this November.

Plains itself is a small town that seems to have been frozen in time since the moment Jimmy Carter became president in 1976. The sign for his campaign headquarters still hangs prominently in the center of town and a wide banner proudly proclaimed that I had indeed arrived in his childhood home.

My first stop was Maranatha Baptist Church, where I was welcomed by church members Meshuk Askerzada and his wife, Sue. They were taking me along on the church's monthly food delivery to town members in need of supplies, but first gave me a quick tour of the building. Their congregation had famously split off from an original church that had refused to let go of its segregationist tradition, and Maranatha proudly counted former President Carter and his wife Rosalynn among their members. The Askerzadas themselves reflected the church's cherished diversity — Meshuk is a converted Afghani Muslim while his wife Sue is a southern bred white Christian.

Soon after I arrived, a big truck with tinted windows pulled up. Out stepped Mrs. Carter herself, coming to join her fellow members for the food delivery. She was a spry older woman, with a gentle demeanor and a stately manner. She emanated a quiet confidence and gained my immediate respect. After all the supplies had been loaded, she invited me to ride along with her as we made the food rounds. And so it was that I spent most of the morning with a Secret Service escort, tumbling in and out of a vehicle with Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

We made for a rather large group — five of us in all — or at least it felt that way as I entered each small home. Unaccustomed to both Southern hospitality and custom, I found myself hanging back as everyone else walked familiarly into the living rooms of various Plains citizens. Babies were picked up, hugs distributed, smiles and greetings freely given as I managed to interrupt the friendly conversations with my questions about their experiences with voting in Sumter County. On those occasions when I was less than assertive, Mrs. Carter stepped up to the plate with an authoritative ease, managing to translate my query into Southern speak.

Talking to these various community members shook me to the core. Here they were, people who had faced down violence and oppression throughout the civil rights movement. They had been voting for years, but remained haunted by those memories. Trained over time to avoid conflict with the town's white citizens, some of these people were still reluctant to assert their right to the ballot. In fact, one elderly black man told me that if he was told he couldn't vote, after many years of exercising that particular civic duty, then there "must be a good reason for it."

I was relieved to find two women who seemed passionate about voting and angry about any rule that would keep them from performing this precious civic duty. Yet, they too changed when I returned with my crew, who happened to be older white men. In a startling change of demeanor, they backtracked and told us in a now familiar litany that they, too, were willing to accept any future voting changes. To push them beyond this point and confess the fury they had shared with me only a few short hours earlier would prove to be challenging.

A breakthrough came in the cozy kitchen of Mrs. Rosa Laster. As we all sat quietly, I watched this sweet, older woman struggle to put to words what she had lived through. After all these years, Mrs. Laster was still hesitant, even reluctant, to assert her point of view and recall the history she had endured. When she finally confessed some of the things she had witnessed, we were all a bit shaken. She haltingly told us of neighbors who had risked beatings and house burnings to place their ballots in a box. She refused to go into detail—but those few memories already had their effect. In the back of the room, Sue Askerzada, my normally cheerful host, quietly wiped the tears that were running down her face.

In all, it was a truly humbling experience. I expected problems with directions, cell phone use, accents and scheduling, but I didn't foresee the emotions I would encounter and the tangible fear and sadness that still pervade this otherwise forgettable section of our society. Those in authority often fail to acknowledge, much less meet, the people whose lives they so abruptly change. The "great ideas" and political rhetoric behind voter reform laws are hard to explain to a large family living in a small, one floor house with crumbling ceilings, or a 50 year old woman who still can't spell her name. I couldn't. The air in Plains is heavy with struggle and tradition, perseverance and community, and the land is full of people who cling to one another just to find the momentum to go on. The last thing they need is a hurdle in their endeavor to simply participate in one of democracy's most basic freedoms.