CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Liz Wills remembers the unbelievable feeling when Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009. Now she looks fearfully at the specter of his defeat by a Republican candidate she sees as gripped by the racist right.
“I’m old enough to have seen the ‘black’ and ‘white’ signs for bathrooms, schools segregated, you couldn’t ride in the front of the bus or the train. I saw all of that. I lived through that,” Wills, 73, of Durham, North Carolina, told AFP.
“It’s not supposed to be segregated now but there’s a lot like that still. Racism is alive and well and thriving,” she said, speaking in Charlotte, where Democrats are gathering to formally nominate Obama for re-election in November.
Wills was overcome with emotion when a nation struggling to turn the hard-won gains of the civil rights era into real economic change for poor African Americans elected its first black president.
“There are no words that can tell you the true feeling. It was just so exciting. I didn’t think I would ever see the day,” she told AFP. “They were so beautiful and their hearts looked like they were so warm.”
Her tone changes markedly when asked about the prospect of Republican challenger Mitt Romney ousting Obama after one term, an eventuality she said would be akin to a racist backlash.
“I would be depressed if Mitt Romney was elected. I have to be honest with you, I would be depressed,” she said. “A lot of it’s racism, we have to be truthful, a lot of it would be racism.
“Most people know that Obama has done a good job or has at least tried to do a good job, and a lot of the things that he wanted for all people could not be done because Republicans were just determined to get him out of office.”
Behind Wills, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture chronicles the stories of the civil rights struggle that made Obama’s election possible.
Wills’ hometown of Durham, a railroad hub for slave labor in the 19th century, saw sit-ins and visits from Martin Luther King Jr., en route to its transformation into part of today’s booming Research Triangle zone.
Her cousin Dorothea Jones, 69, recognized those gains but said people of different ethnicities are still being discriminated against.
She recalled in horror a racist incident at the Republican National Convention last week in Tampa, Florida that the Romney campaign strongly condemned and will hope is quickly forgotten.
Two attendees on the floor of the convention hall, who were later ejected, threw peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman and said “this is how we feed animals.”
“You have to look at everyone around those two people who allowed that kind of thing to happen,” said Jones, who was born in North Carolina but is now a Democratic delegate for Massachusetts.
“Our history as African Americans is that people were taken out and lynched. It might have been one or two people that dragged those people out and lynched them, but there was a whole group of people that stood silent, egged them on. That’s how racism flourishes.”
US blacks and Hispanics are far poorer on average than Asian and white counterparts. In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.
Politically at least, gains have been made though.
David Goldfield, history professor at the University of North Carolina and author of several books on politics and race, said it would have been impossible for a black man to run for president 30 or 40 years ago, let alone be elected.
The 2008 Obama campaign succeeded in energizing a black electorate that generally didn’t vote, but it is unclear if he can expect the same turnout this time around.
And while 2008 was undoubtedly historic, the 2012 election could hold even greater significance.
“Electing a black man as president of the United States, that’s really hard to top in terms of history,” said Goldfield. “But I think this election is more important in the sense that the Republican Party really has been captured by the right-wing.
“I believe that voters will be presented with a very stark choice in November. This is going to be a very different country if Republicans come in. George W. Bush’s Republican Party is not the Republican Party out there today.”
If Romney is elected it would have serious implications for the judicial sphere, Goldfield warned, pointing to his belief that the candidate has rented a party with strong doubts about his conservative credentials.
“One of the best ways to prove his bonafides as a conservative is to nominate really conservative federal judges not just at the Supreme Court but also at the federal district court level,” he said.
The whiteness of the audience as Romney picked up the Republican nod in Tampa last week was staggering, as is polling data that shows anywhere between 90 and 100 percent of blacks prefer Obama over his rival.
Nationwide surveys of all American voters show the pair neck-and-neck with nine weeks to go until election day.