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.
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“Politics is a dirty business: People make you promises and they don’t follow through on them; they promise healthcare, and you don’t get it,” he says.Skip to next paragraph
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His sister, Mattie Franklin, says over the years she urged her brother to vote. “It counts, it really counts,” she says, contacted by phone in Monterey, Calif. “If you don’t vote, it’s as if you had nothing to say.” But to no avail.
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Back in Greensboro, Duke married and started a family. He drove a cab – one reason he’s so well known in town – and then started a janitorial business and later a landscaping business. But he also became what he now describes as a “near professional drinker.” Divorce and the suicide in 1987 of a beloved son – a gifted running back facing a career-ending injury – sent his life spinning out of control and onto the streets. He describes his two other sons and one daughter as “estranged,” but expects relations will improve.
Duke credits his faith in God with helping him get his life back on track. “I shook it by believing in God. That’s the only way you can do it,” he says.
Last spring, he moved into the Salvation Army Center of Hope shelter, where he lives and works as a floor technician, part of a training program to help seniors get back to work.
He’s also become the staff’s most effective contact with the city’s homeless community, which he knows well. He’s out every morning by 5 or 6 to distribute food to the homeless.
“The first thing he does every day is to see about other folks who may not have food,” says Kenyatta Jennings, assistant director at the shelter.
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Every election cycle, the Salvation Army Center of Hope urges its clients to vote. Sometimes, people do. But the response this year has been overwhelming, says Ms. Jennings.
Of 45 voting-age adults now living at the shelter, all but five registered to vote: 29 at a center at the shelter and another 11, including Duke, at other voter registration sites in town.
“We said: ‘Don’t forget, these people who we elect are going to be making decisions about things that affect you, such as the affordable housing that you need or Social Security and things you are looking forward to so that you can stabilize your life,’ ” says Jennings.
Duke credits shelter staff for giving him the extra nudge to vote this year, but he also is convinced that the stakes are higher for this campaign.
“I don’t know too much about finance, but somebody’s got to do something,” he says. “Something has to be done or we’ll all go down.
“With Barack Obama, we’ve got someone who’s putting the word through clear,” he adds. “He’s speaking something I can understand.”
Duke follows the national financial crisis by reading newspapers at the public library. On Sept. 28, he decided to register to vote there.
“My director [at the Salvation Army] convinced me. She said it was time to vote,” he says. He worries that the financial crisis will hit poor people hard and says the next president must have a plan to address it.
Duke doesn’t recall which particular group registering new voters at the library – the League of Women Voters or Moveon
.org – handled his paperwork, but he does remember feeling good about doing it. “It was just time for me to stand up and be a man,” he says.
On Oct. 16, the first day of early voting in North Carolina, Duke traveled in a Salvation Army van midmorning to the courthouse. He waited in line to vote nearly 2-1/2 hours.
“It felt good,” he said after marking his ballot. “I thought it was going to be hard, but everything went smooth.”