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The new voter: A Southern black man stands to be counted

Amos ‘Duke’ Griffin Sr. knows racial violence, disaffection, and homelessness. Now, on his path to a more stable life, he elects to vote for the first time.

By Staff writer / October 24, 2008

Keeping things clean: Amos 'Duke' Griffin of Greensboro, N.C., works part time buffing floors at the Salvation Army Center of Hope, where he also lives. Staff members there encouraged him to vote this year for the first time in his life.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff


Greensboro, N.C. –

It took Amos Griffin Sr. nearly half a century to register to vote, but last week – on Day 1 of early voting in North Carolina – he cast the first ballot of his 64 years.

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“I’ve been thinking it’s time for me to vote,” he says, outside the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., where he waited 2-1/2 hours in line to vote. “We’re in the soup now. We’re the richest country in the world, begging.”

Mr. Griffin – “Duke” to the many people who greet him as he strolls the tree-studded park where he once lived – could be Exhibit A for the most powerful voter-registration drive in recent state history, now running almost 5 to 1 in favor of Democrats.

The Obama campaign alone has recruited some 17,000 volunteers in North Carolina, along with hundreds of paid staff in 45 offices around the state – all fixed on registering and turning out anyone who might vote Democrat.

That bid has especially fired up the African-American community, a group historically in the Democratic column. Between January and mid-October, the number of black registered voters jumped 14 percent, compared with 6 percent for whites, according to figures from the state election board.

The result is that 22.4 percent of eligible Tarheel voters are black, up from 20.9 percent in 2004. The overall uptick is small, but in a close election – which polls show is likely to be the case between presidential rivals Barack Obama and John McCain in this state – those new black voters could determine who will win North Carolina’s 15 Electoral College votes.

For Duke, the decision to vote came down to a simple calculation: Life is tough and about to be tougher for poor people. This year’s historic presidential election counts more than most, and he wanted to be counted in it.

For most of his life, Duke opted out of politics, including the simple act of voting. The reason: Voting in the South of his youth could be dangerous; later, he came to see politics as corrupt and voting as pointless.

He has held many jobs and launched several businesses, but he also spent years on the street. He now lives and works at the Salvation Army Center of Hope in Greensboro, an emergency shelter. Staff members there urged him and other clients to vote – and they set up registration on-site and offered rides to the polls during early voting to make that outcome more likely.

In the end, Duke says, he voted for Senator Obama not because he’s black, but because he’s the first politician since John Kennedy to promise change – and look as if he meant it.

“People are hungry, and it’s going to get worse,” he says. Could Obama make a difference? “I think he will,” he says.

* * *
From boyhood, Duke saw politics as forbidden territory.

Born in Vicksburg, Miss. – one of 14 brothers and seven sisters – he cut cotton for $3 a day and swept the floor at his father’s blues club, the Blue Note Cafe, while attending a one-room delta schoolhouse.

One strong memory of his childhood was seeing a photograph of the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was tortured and murdered for “insulting” a white woman in Money, Miss, about 100 miles northeast of Vicksburg. Duke was 11 then, just three years younger than Emmett.

“It was a frightful thing,” he says. “It’s as if they were trying to say: ‘Nigger, stay in your place.’ ”
The conviction that politics is for other people proved hard to shake. Duke’s father, who upon separating from Duke’s mother brought the baby boy to live with a grandmother, apparently never considered trying to vote.