By Ed Stannard,
Register Metro Editor
NEW HAVEN — It took a few minutes, but once members of the Dixwell/Newhallville Seniors Club started talking about history in the making, their excitement grew.
For these folks, African-Americans who were in their 30s and 40s when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, Barack Obama on the verge of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee is a dream many dared not imagine they would see come to life.
“When you think about the civil rights movement, I remember being on the Washington Mall with Martin Luther King,” said William Wilson, 79, of Hamden as he took the microphone Wednesday. But his message was not just one of pride in the first black candidate to have a realistic shot at the White House.
“I remember a lot of Jewish people early on in the civil rights movement who marched with us,” Wilson said. His point: Obama’s success shows how the country is coming together as a united people.
Irrita Osborn called her grandson. “I said, ‘Trevor, turn to CNN; you can see history in the making!’”Obama, a first-term U.S. senator from Illinois, claimed enough delegates Tuesday to secure the nomination over Sen. Hillary Clinton. He’ll be going one-on-one against Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“I knew it was going to happen one day, but I never thought I was going to live to see an African-American nominee on a major political ticket,” said Irrita Osborn, director of the Dixwell/Newhallville Senior Center on Goffe Street. She said she called her grandson when Obama gave his victory speech Tuesday.
“I said, ‘Trevor, turn to CNN; you can see history in the making!’”
Ella Smith of Winter Street reminded the group that Obama is benefiting from a long line of people who worked for civil rights, such as Fanny Lou Hamer, whose Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the all-white state delegation at the 1964 Democratic convention.
“Oh, she was a doll! She took a Mississippi delegation to the convention and then she sang a spiritual,” Smith said. “It didn’t just start now. It’s been going on for 40 years or more.”
Hattie Turner, who lives in the Bella Vista senior residence, sees America’s racially divided social structure starting to crumble. “You know who’s the minority? White folks. So we need to help our government adjust to that.” She encouraged everyone to vote on Nov. 4.
While members of the senior club clearly are thrilled about Obama — “tickled pink,” as Bessie Spann, 69, of Newhallville put it — there was an undercurrent of concern for the candidate’s safety and some anger that Clinton has not gotten fully behind him.
“I’m glad and I’m sad because I don’t trust people,” said one woman who would not give her name. “Look how good (John) Kennedy was and they killed him. I always pray for everybody, but what good is it going to do if there’s bad people in the world?”
“I hope he wins it all without Hillary,” Spann said. “She has no respect for us. We put her husband in office” and things he’s said have been “kind of raggedy, too.” On the other hand, “Obama is a gentleman to the end.”
“It’s amazing; the guy’s good,” said Rudolph Saunders, 85, of Bristol Street. He didn’t deny, though, that there is still racism in America. “There’s always going to be a little bit,” he said. “There’s always going to be some person with a negative attitude.”
Thelma Walker, 81, of Ivy Street, was hopeful, though. “America is changing. We should learn to live together.”
While pride in a fellow African-American is strong, it’s his ideas that really won over most of the seniors. Health care, the economy and the war in Iraq are the biggest issues on their minds.
Hilda Cooke, 84, of Whalley Avenue, said the government needs to treat its soldiers better. “They don’t have (any) place to go; they’re treated so badly,” she said. “They’re just tossed around like a breeze blowing trash around.”
Another woman said, “They keep sending people to outer space and you have people here who can’t afford to buy medicine. It’s criminal.”
Many of the seniors were realistic that Obama won’t be able to deliver on all his promises. However, Bob DeShields, 74, of Redfield Street, thought he would improve America’s standing in the world.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be able to do some of the many things he talked about, but if he does, a lot of people in America will be gracious and happy,” he said. “You’re going to see a different attitude. You’re going to see progress from many different directions.”
Ed Stannard can be reached at email@example.com or 789-5743.
Photos by Peter Casolino
Top: Thelma Walker of New Haven, right, talks about the presidential race at the Dixwell/Newhallveille Senior Center. With her is Eunice Mayo, 79. Above left: Rudolph Saunders, 85, of New Haven shares his thoughts.