When the Democratic National Convention comes to Charlotte in September, the symbolism will be unmistakable: Mayor Anthony Foxx greeting President Barack Obama on his way to re-nomination for the highest office in the country. To some, that image may conjure up the fulfillment of the American dream; to others, it may seem like the end of the world. But Black History Month is a time to set politics and partisan differences aside and note the progress we've made. And yes, though problems persist, there is progress.
This is North Carolina, a state where in a bloody coup d'état in 1898 — the only one in U.S. history — mobs of armed white supremacists overthrew an elected local government of blacks and whites, burned a black newspaper office and ran out of town those they didn't murder. The heroes were Republicans, drawn to the party of Lincoln, and the villains a Democratic establishment supported by the state's institutions and newspapers.
This is North Carolina, where decades of Jim Crow followed, limiting the vote and equal access to jobs, homes and education to just some of its citizens. Through the efforts and sacrifices of civil rights pioneers, progress was made. And when President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party became the symbol of civil rights legislation, the racial dynamic of party politics changed.
Foxx is the second African-American mayor elected in Charlotte. The first, Harvey Gantt, is a one-man timeline of the success and stumbles on the way to 2012. You can track Charlotte's progress from Gantt's architecture career and two terms in the mayor's office, between 1983 and 1987, through his two rancorous and hard-fought Senate races in the 1990s, when GOP opponent Jesse Helms' negative, racially targeted campaigning helped refine the tactic.
When I spoke with Gantt for a story in The Root, he told me: "I remember saying when I lost the race to Jesse Helms, the really emotional race ... I have this strange feeling that he's a dying breed, and even in North Carolina we're going to see different kinds of politicians win statewide who are going to have views that are going to be more reflective of where I am than where Jesse Helms is."
Gantt has been active in the community and in convention efforts; the 35,000 expected convention visitors will see his name on the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture.
He was mentor and inspiration to Foxx, whose name is now being mentioned as a possible gubernatorial contender. No one doubts the convention will be a showcase for his future ambitions as well as for the city of Charlotte. As Foxx told me for The Root article, "We're all ready to move beyond race. I just don't think we know quite how to do it. We get shown how to do it in spots. The president's example is taking us some part along the way there. And I think, maybe in my little corner of the world, maybe I help that some, too."
Remnants of residential segregation in Charlotte can be traced in long-discredited restrictive covenants, and the achievement gap in schools persists, though measured in income more than race. The problems have not disappeared, but evolved, and require more complex solutions.
As the Democratic National Convention increasingly comes to define Charlotte in 2012, some of the progress celebrated during Black History Month can be seen in the diverse group that has moved into town for the duration or — in some cases — even longer.
Marilyn D. Davis
The words and faces flash by on the digital photo frame on Marilyn Davis' desk: congresswoman and presidential hopeful Shirley Chisholm; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; quotes from W.E.B. Du Bois; a tribute to journalist and activist Ida. B. Wells; the Little Rock Nine; a portrait of the first African-Americans elected to Congress during Reconstruction; a determined Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil and voting rights activist and former sharecropper whose Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964.
Davis said she owes a lot to "the trailblazers who have come before," and especially admires Hamer, who said she was "sick and tired of being sick and tired" when she tried to register to vote and was beaten because of it.
"Here I am sitting in this position," said Davis. "I'm sure she never envisioned that when she went to the convention."
The position Davis refers to is her job as director of constituency outreach for the Democratic National Convention Committee, where she is responsible for engaging key constituent leaders of the Democratic Party, such as: African-Americans, women, Hispanics, Asian Pacific Islanders, seniors, youth, rural Americans, Native Americans, progressives, unions and business.
For Davis, 40, working in Charlotte is a homecoming. She grew up in tiny Chapin, S.C., where her parents, who went to segregated schools, still live. "For us, Election Day was a big day. I didn't go to school; they would go out and vote," she said.
"In the evenings we would gather around the TV and watch the results." When reporters would stand in front of the capitol or White House, Davis wasn't sure if it was the journalism or politics that intrigued her most. She majored in mass communications before earning her degree in government and international studies from the University of South Carolina. "It was the political activism, the opportunity to advocate for others."