Indiana Town: From Racist Past to Primary Present The Democratic presidential campaigns are crisscrossing Indiana, stopping in Republican strongholds such as Martinsville. In this town with a troubled racial history, voters share their views on the match-up between a white woman and a black man.
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Indiana Town: From Racist Past to Primary Present

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Indiana Town: From Racist Past to Primary Present

Indiana Town: From Racist Past to Primary Present

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Both Democratic presidential contenders are in Indiana today. Polls show a tight contest there between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama less than a week before the primary.

In a moment we'll hear how Barack Obama is managing the controversy over his former pastor. First though, to Indiana where the candidates are even looking for votes in rural Republican strongholds. On Sunday night Bill Clinton visited Martinsville, a town with a long record of electing Republicans and a troubled racial past.

Now, this week our co-host Michele Norris traveled to Martinsville too. She wanted to gauge how voters there view the historic presidential match-up between a woman and an African-American man.

MICHELE NORRIS: Martinsville looks like so many other small Indiana communities with its tidy homes in a town square surrounding an old brick courthouse. The town sits halfway between Indianapolis and Bloomington. And years ago its Artesian springs were quite an attraction. Martinsville is known as the City of Mineral Water - a neon sign above the square reminds visitors of that fact. And here's another fact about Martinsville. For a time, it was the nation's largest supplier of goldfish with ponds producing 20 million of the tiny creatures each year.

But Martinsville also had another reputation.

Ms. LYNETTE LIBERGE (Teacher): We had certain fears about Martinsville. We would bring our basketball team down and we were afraid to come here.

Mr. RYAN WILSON: What I remember when I moved to Martinsville, none of my black friends would come and visit me. I haven't seen them - I've seen them once since, and that's been years ago. They just won't come down because of the rap, yeah. But you know, whatever. That's all right.

NORRIS: Impressions from Martinsville residents Lynette Liberge and Ryan Wilson.

Throughout Indiana, Martinsville acquired a certain spooky infamy as a town with little tolerance for outsiders, particularly those with dark skin. It was an alleged Ku Klux Klan stronghold in the 1920s and labeled as a so-called sundown town. Blacks were expected to clear out before dark.

And in 1968 the racist image was practically set in stone by a brutal attack. A young black woman named Carol Jenkins was selling encyclopedias door to door when she was stabbed in the chest with a screwdriver. The Jenkins murder went unsolved for decades until a white woman stepped forward in 2002, saying she had long kept a terrible secret. At the age of seven she claimed to have been sitting in the backseat of a car when she witnessed her father commit the crime. At 70 years old, Kenneth Richmond was arrested, but he died before facing trial. And the questions about the racial climate in Martinsville have lived on.

John Winenger is working on a documentary about the town's effort to shed its reputation.

Mr. JOHN WINENGER: There's kind of this stigma or a shroud or dark cloud or whatever you want to call it about the Martinsville community being very racist.

NORRIS: We met Winenger at an awards dinner for a group called PRIDE. That stands for People Respecting Individuality and Diversity in Everyone. With things like workshops and fishing trips with inner-city kids, the group tries hard to signal that Martinsville is a welcoming place - civic duty with a dose of damage control.

Jeff Main is a financial consultant in Martinsville. His family helped found the group.

Mr. JEFF MAIN: The reputation that we're wrestling with is that Martinsville is a racially intolerant community. While it would be crazy for me to say that there's no basis in fact for that - I mean certainly this is a small town with its share of close-minded people over the last several decades - there's no question in my mind that the vast, vast majority of people here are normal people who are open-minded.

NORRIS: In the 2000 census only 11 of the town's more than 11,000 residents identified themselves as black. The town's complexion has not changed much, but Lynette Liberge, who teaches French at Martinsville High School, says attitudes have started to shift.

Ms. LIBERGE: I don't really believe in trickle-down economics, but I think I do believe in trickle-down desegregation, because I'm a product of Indianapolis public schools, which had forced busing in the '70s, and that was just, you know, wham, a big cultural change, and I don't think that that was a success. Whereas here, if there's this natural desegregation, I think that - that that's going to be a success, and I see that happening here.

NORRIS: Even so, Martinsville residents are weary of publicity, worried that any kind of media attention will inevitably dredge up the past. And Bill Clinton's recent visit to this overwhelmingly conservative Republican town has put it in the spotlight.

President BILL CLINTON: Hello, Martinsville, hello. Thank you.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NORRIS: Nine hundred people packed the local middle school to hear the former president speak. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are courting Republican strongholds, hoping for crossover support. Obama also sent some of his surrogates to Martinsville for a Q&A at a local diner.

And that raises an interesting question. Does race still matter in Martinsville? Those kinds of attitudes can be hard to gauge. Exit polls from the Pennsylvania primary found that 12 percent of white voters said race was a factor in their decision. As the issue of race erupts yet again in this election with the Jeremiah Wright controversy, we wondered if color still counts in a town with a trouble economy and a history of intolerance.

(Soundbite of car)

NORRIS: On a recent visit, one of the busiest gathering spots was the Swifty gas station. Here political views don't flow quite like gas from the pump, but if you hang around long enough, people do share their thoughts.

Tammy Riesenmey says race or gender should not count, but...

Ms. TAMMY RIESENMEY: Well, I mean, in some people's mind, yeah. You know, you got people out there that are, you know, who are racist or (unintelligible) you know, issues. With me, you know, I like to, you know, vote for the people and what we really need. That's what I'll vote for.

NORRIS: We caught Ryan Wilson just before he drove off from the gas station in a powder blue Cadillac that was starting to show its age.

Mr. WILSON: I don't know. It would be weird for a woman or black to run the United States. I think a lot of things would change. Probably the male chauvinistic side of me is going to vote for the man just because - I'm going to be honest, you know. Probably - probably it won't be McCain since he kind of stands for everything George Bush stands for, so I don't know. I think Barack - he says he doesn't take money from the lobbyists and everything, which I think can be a - can be real positive.

NORRIS: Wilson, like many we met here, is leaning toward Obama, and he acknowledged that there's more than a bit of irony in that.

Mr. WILSON: KKK used to rally right down there. I mean, it's widely known. I remember going to school and reading a Sports Illustrated article about Isiah Thomas and how his mom didn't want him going to Bloomington because it was so close to Martinsville. And when, yeah, when you come to Martinsville, you notice that it's mostly white folks, but that doesn't we all are prejudiced against everybody. Love thy neighbor as thyself. That's a big part of Martinsville too - churches on every corner.

NORRIS: And these days, political signs are in lots of corner too, though most are for the local races. Yet the presidential primary next Tuesday could be just one sign of how much Martinsville has changed.

I'm Michele Norris.

SIEGEL: Our co-host who is spending this week reporting from Indiana.

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