S.C. Voter Reflects On Obama's First Year
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
A year ago tomorrow, President Obama took the oath of office. We're spending some time this week looking back at his first year.
NPR's Debbie Elliott traveled recently to Columbia, South Carolina, to check back in with a woman she met at the Democratic National Convention. Her name is Diane Sumpter. She grew up in the South during segregation.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Diane Sumpter is an activist.
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ELLIOTT: Whether its public schools, the Democratic Party or the NAACP, if there's something going on, you're likely to find her in the middle of it. Like yesterday's King Day March in Columbia, a protest to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House.
Ms. DIANE SUMPTER (Activist): ...you know? And I do this for my grandchildren. You know, those black feet are tired.
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Ms. SUMPTER: But if somebody got to walk for them - they can't walk for themselves - so that they know we stand on history.
ELLIOTT: Sumpter, who is 62, remembers drinking from water fountains labeled "colored only," and participating in civil rights marches as a child in Jacksonville, Florida. She was a delegate for Ted Kennedy in 1980. In 2008, she supported Hillary Clinton. But when Barack Obama won the nomination, she was elated.
Here she is from the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Ms. SUMPTER: Never in my wildest dream did I even consider during my lifetime that this country would be willing to take this step and choose or elect an African-American.
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Ms. SUMPTER: I'm now - I'm believing it now.
ELLIOTT: Sumpter, who owns a management consulting firm in Columbia, is proud of that milestone today.
Ms. SUMPTER: I believe it now. I believe it 100 percent that we have a president who won, who I think has done a phenomenal job.
ELLIOTT: Sumpter believes President Obama is living up to his campaign promises, even in these daunting times. She's frustrated with the progress on health care but doesn't blame the president.
Ms. SUMPTER: There is a mood and an effort to continuously pull, twist and create confusion, and that's what I think is part of the result I've seen from having an African-American president. There is a color element in this country that I think for the first time we are having to come stark and look at it.
Just even look at what they want to call the president. They don't always say President Obama. You know, all of a sudden, there's a familiarity. I never did get to calling George Bush, George.
ELLIOTT: She's also concerned that from the Democratic side, expectations may have been too high for what President Obama can accomplish.
State Representative Todd Rutherford of Columbia has those high expectations. And while he thinks Mr. Obama will learn from this year's experiences, he worries it could be even harder to push his agenda next year.
State Representative TODD RUTHERFORD (Democrat, South Carolina): And I would have liked to have seen him grab that health-care debate by the horns very early on, and marshal it through.
ELLIOTT: Rutherford, who is 39, was one of the first South Carolina Democrats to get behind the Obama campaign. He says this first year in the White House has been quite a lesson for the president.
State Rep. RUTHERFORD: He got a chance to see what it's like to govern. I think he started off trying to find the middle. And I think that the Republicans punished him for it - and they continue to.
ELLIOTT: Rutherford and another African-American state representative, Leon Howard of Columbia, say in some ways the Obama presidency has been a setback for race relations.
State Representative LEON HOWARD (Democrat, South Carolina): Here in South Carolina, I think we're experiencing what we call an Obama backlash, where there are Caucasians in leadership who say to African-Americans - not verbally but mentally - you have your black president, but we're still in charge of corporate America; we're still in charge of state government.
ELLIOTT: Columbia Hospital executive Vince Ford says black voters helped put President Obama in office but have yet to benefit.
Mr. VINCE FORD (Senior Vice President, Community Services, Palmetto Health): We can celebrate the success of having an African-American president. But truth be told, I mean, we still live shorter life spans, there's still an achievement gap anywhere in the country, we're still disproportionately incarcerated. I mean, here we are in 2010, and we're still lagging way behind in every statistical category that you can think of, and we're headed south.
ELLIOTT: For Diane Sumpter, that means there's still more work to be done.
Ms. SUMPTER: So I'm going to march 'til I die. And then I'm going to fight, too.
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.
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