Obama Volunteers Face Uphill Slog in White Rural Kentucky

11/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

According to Lexington Democratic Party staffer John Malloy, Magoffin County in eastern Kentucky is the whitest county in the United States, but there's a one-woman Obama campaign being waged there with some success. "It's not about race," says activist and life-long resident Victoria Doucette. "It's about the economy. I think that a lot of the people who supported Hillary Clinton here in the primary will vote for Barack Obama."

Like Sue Koplowitz (see picture below), the London, Kentucky, resident working for Obama in neighboring Laurel County, Victoria has spent her own money - she estimates over $3000 - to buy the yard signs and handouts, buttons and gasoline to promote the man she knew she'd "follow anywhere - one day I knew he'd be President," after hearing his 2004 Democratic Convention speech.

Many in Kentucky are wondering what role race is playing in this campaign. Last Sunday, the headline on Lexington's newspaper the Herald-Leader read, "The Obama question: Will his race matter?" Written by Valarie Honeycutt Spears and Jim Warren, the article tracks the range of opinion held "about what role lingering prejudices will play," but finds no strong trend. A September poll shows that Obama has the support of 31% of white voters here, in contrast to 40% nationwide.

In a companion article, "Let's cast our votes for the right reasons, and rise above racism," Herald-Leader columnist Merlene Davis recalls childhood incidents in Owensboro KY when her brother was called the n-word and she and her siblings had to run for their lives through the playground of the Robert E. Lee Elementary School. At times like this, their mother said, "You can't be as good as those people, Merlene. You have to be better than," also Davis' message for Kentucky voters.

Based on Kentucky's history as a slave-breeding and exporting state, on the fence during the Civil War and with strong feelings lingering today, there is good reason to consider the role of racism in politics and everyday life. Magoffin, Laurel and neighboring Whitley County are documented in Elliot Jaspin's book Buried in the Bitter Water: The hidden history of racial cleansing in America (2007) as places where, from one census count to the next, local black population dropped from small but substantial to almost nothing. Research revealed that white mobs and terror campaigns were mounted to force black populations to depart, rousted from their homes, leaving land and property behind in their flight.

That's what happened on October 30, 1919 in Corbin Kentucky, a small railroad town on the border between Laurel and Whitley counties. In a riveting chapter titled "A dog named n***er," Jaspin used oral and written histories, sworn affidavits and newspaper archives to recreate that night when a "crowd of 125 gun-toting men" went house to house in a frenzy of looting and robbery, driving all black residents and railroad camp workers to the depot, where they were placed on any train passing through and forcibly deported from the only home many had ever known. Pressed into the mob, the high school marching band passed the depot in the dark, and one band member "saw a strange sight. It 'was full of colored people...I don't know where they had come from. They were from everywhere, some of them even in night clothes.'"

Today that depot sits in the late-October sun, handsomely restored and in use as Corbin's Economic Development Agency. Up the street is the original Sanders Café and Museum, home to the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant opened by Colonel Harland Sanders and wife. A tour of the town's small neat neighborhoods reveals clusters of campaign signs supporting local candidates, and one each for McCain-Palin and Obama-Biden. But you won't see many black people, except for those passing through. "If you see a group of black people here, you can't help it - you stare," said Duke Hopper, a local resident who came to the area from Illinois.

Sitting with Hopper over a lunch of the Colonel's finest, Sue Koplowitz said that in six years of working at two area newspapers in Corbin, a total of five black people had ever visited her offices. Duke's estimate was six, in the years he has lived locally. Twenty miles north in Rockcastle County, community activist Deb Bledsoe reported the same number over a period of ten or more years, saying that Rockcastle is still regarded by blacks as a "sundowner" county - if you want to be safe, better be out of the county before the sun goes down. The Southern Poverty Law Center provides a "Hate Group Map" for Kentucky and nationwide and displays several Nazi and Klan groups in this area, with a lot more in nearby Tennessee.

Neither Koplowitz nor Hopper thinks that outright racism is still a big factor locally in the voting choices people will make on November 4. Yes, people are racist but "it's not mean-spirited or violent - it's just what they grew up with, they have never been anywhere else," mused Hopper. He said there is still a feeling that blacks should stay in their "place," and that place does not include positions of authority like President of the United States. Sue suggested that local folks go for what is most familiar. They look at the candidates and ask "Who is closest to me?" and in this case that means an older white man like John McCain. Bledsoe echoed these points by citing the unwritten rule for racial "harmony" in the South: "as long as everyone follows the rules, you can all get along."

Magoffin County's Doucette does not seem to buy into the idea that rural folks are mired in past prejudices and predetermined responses. She has given out 250 bumperstickers and over 40 Obama-Biden yard signs mostly in the Salyersville area of Magoffin, a county "that got on the front page of the L.A. Times" in the May primary for its overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton. (Even the "Undecideds" got more votes than Obama.) Calls are coming in for Doucette to find signs for Pike and other eastern Kentucky counties, not known for their love of blacks, but always a hotbed of support for candidates who champion the working people - the "pipefitters and carpenters and coal truck derivers," says Doucette.

Back in Lexington, the Herald-Leader's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett struck back at the bigots with an October 5 cartoon that depicts candidate Obama besieged by racists horrors: hung in effigy, campaign sign aflame, shackled to the rear bumper of a car, and being addressed by Colonel Sanders in a Klan hood and holding a bullwhip, saying "Hey man, it's nothing racial..." Pett says, "I did it to blunt the claims and statements I heard on right-wing talk show radio here that race is not an issue [for Kentuckians] and it's the black people who are the racists." He was angered that the anti-Obama pundits are equating "a black person in 2008 voting for Obama" as the same as "a white person in 2008 voting against him." Pett said that in his 24 years in Kentucky he has heard enough people who think they can speak "comfortably" expressing racist statements, to know that is it "absurd" to say that race is not a factor here.

Living in Lexington since 1960, Obama supporter Maureen Tarpey recalled the 1960s as a time of total segregation when the only black people she saw downtown were women working as domestic servants, waiting for the bus. She and her husband were part of the Civil Rights movement here, sitting at the Woolworth's counter with black activists and marching for their rights. She had assumed that was distant history, but with the racist poison she hears every day on a local "6:30 a.m." radio talk show about Barack Obama, she is dismayed to realize that the malevolence remains active. Democratic Party stalwart Brenda McClanahan collects the anti-Obama viral emails and whisper campaign materials she has received, and is chilled by the advice of one to "Go to WalMart and buy a gun...trouble will erupt" after the election, no matter who wins.

Kentucky is looking forward to Election Day on November 4 with fascination, trepidation - and hope.