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.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
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
'It was time': Mr. Griffin sees this presidential election as more vital than in years past. He worries the poor will get poorer amid the financial crisis.

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.

“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.

“You couldn’t vote in Mississippi in those days,” Duke says. “Most of it was survival. When I was a young kid, we wouldn’t even think of voting.”
In 1962, the father paid his son’s way to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T), a historically black college in Greensboro.

Duke arrived just two years after four A&T students sat down at a local Woolworths counter and asked to be served. The protest – which grew to hundreds of people and lasted six months – electrified nearby colleges and launched other civil rights protests across the Old South.

“It was an exciting time,” says Duke, who says he knew the four activists – Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain at the university. Still, he wasn’t moved to cast a vote. That, he now says, was a mistake.

“When I was a young kid, I wasn’t thinking about voting. But as I got older and when Martin [Luther King Jr.] came through and started fighting for freedom, everything started going into perspective, but I just didn’t get out and vote,” he says. “Basically, I wasn’t thinking about it. I was a lone wolf.”

President Kennedy’s assassination during Duke’s second year in college was also a blow to whatever interest he had in politics. Kennedy brought the races together, he says. “He pulled them in close. When Kennedy got shot, everything started falling apart.”

The killing of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, only reinforced that idea. “After Martin passed, I said, ‘Well, what’s the need to vote? The vote ain’t going to count,’ but that was stupidity, ignorance,” he says.

* * *
Despite his newly minted business degree after graduation from A&T, he didn’t find the path to the higher-end jobs he’d expected. “People said that I was overqualified. People didn’t like to hire a smart nigger,” he says.

Still, he always found work. What he learned about cooking from his grandmother helped him work off and on as a cook. “All my uncles could cook, and my daddy, too.” (A classic Duke dinner: Soak pork chops in Italian dressing, add garlic and onions, bake at 350 degrees F. until it’s cooked how you like it.

Meanwhile, peel and boil yams, add sugar, cook on medium until almost done. Add Pet or Carnation evaporated milk, a little nutmeg, and some vanilla flavoring. Make corn bread with jalapeño peppers on a griddle, as you would pancakes. Skip dessert.)

In 1969, he was working as a cook for Hot Shoppe and living near the A&T campus when National Guardsmen stormed Scott Hall, killing a student and wounding two others. “I was used to the killing,” he says. “In Mississippi, it was nothing to hear about people getting lynched and killed, just as if it were legal.”

Duke also recalls the 1979 massacre in Greensboro, when five anti-Ku Klux Klan marchers were shot and killed by members of the Klan and the American Nazi Party. The six Klansmen and Nazis charged with the shootings were acquitted by an all-white jury. These events, too, were disillusioning to Duke.

“It made you feel as if you wanted to go out and kill all white folks, but over the years you let God handle it, because He’s still in control,” he says.
But his disaffection from politics deepened. When his Hot Shoppe job moved to Washington, D.C., in 1965, he got a closer look at national politics – and found it wanting.

“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.

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.

* * *
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.

* * *
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.”

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