Letter from a South Carolina Volunteer


cross-posted to Jack & Jill Politics

Blog readers, here's yet another account from an Obama volunteer, Marisa Darden, who traveled to South Carolina. It's a letter she sent out to friends and gave us permission to post here...
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Hey All,

I know I haven't spoken to some of you in quite awhile, but I wanted to share a little bit about a weekend that has really changed my belief on politics and this upcoming election. I've been wanting to send this out for days, but it's been more than difficult trying to encapsulate the true depth and emotion that I feel when I think about the tremendous history that is being created, and how one candidate so emphatically embodies our nation's future.

I have been a Barack Obama fan since his DNC speech in 2004. While I was excited to know he'd be running for president, I have been in awe of his campaign from afar, subconsciously worried about his chances at a real shot for the White House, and reluctant to put my full weight behind this rising star. I signed up to help in the South Carolina Primary, mostly because I wanted to do something, rather than just sit and bitch and complain about the state of politics today. I signed up a few days before the Iowa Caucuses.

Wednesday after class, I drove to Kingstree, South Carolina, located in Williamsburg County. The county is the second poorest county in the state, and is overwhelmingly African-American. More information about the county can be found on Wikipedia. While I had motivated several other Duke Law students to come down and participate, no one else wanted to skip school (ha!), so I went alone, really not knowing what to expect. Obama had about 80 paid staffers in South Carolina, and three of them were mobilizing in this county. They had a great ground effort going, but it was clear they needed our help. About 2 hours before I got there, 7 Harvard post-graduate students had also come to Kingstree to help, and they turned out to be a godsend, taking me under their wing and providing hours of entertainment and fun. The campaign arranged for me to stay with a family in neighboring Greeleyville, where me and the Harvard kids all stayed.

It turns out I made a great choice coming down early, because Senator Obama was coming to Kingstree the next day! Bright and early last Thursday, the other volunteers and I made our way to one of the two high schools in the county to set up and prepare for Obama's visit. The crowd was almost all Black, but spanned all ages. It was an amazing turnout for a Thursday morning, and Sen. Obama spoke for 30 minutes, giving a similar version of his stump speech. The crowd was clearly enthralled by the Senator, though they got bored pretty easily when he went into too much detail about his policies. This crowd responded to the rhetoric mostly, and there was very little Clinton-bashing, even though Bill Clinton had been in the area the day before, disparaging the Obama campaign. After the rally, the Senator came out to thank all the volunteers, was very polite, and shook everyone's hand. We were all really excited, and motivated to keep working towards his win.

Friday, I spent the day going door to door in Kingstree and Greeleyville, stopping at homes that had been earmarked by the campaign as Obama supporters. Door to Door isn't exactly accurate, particularly in Greeleyville, where it seemed as though we were going "quarter-mile to quarter-mile" because the houses were so far apart. This was where the county's poverty was most apparent because most of the homes were permanently placed double-wide trailers that were run down and dilapidated. A few highlights from the day:

  • I fell through a porch

  • I received a marriage proposal (I said maybe... hold the gifts)

  • Chased by a rotweiler on a very long leash...

  • I met an 86 year old African-American woman who had 11 children, all grown and successful. She told me that she felt this election wasn't about her because she was "on the way out." Instead, she was voting for Obama because she wanted her grandchildren to see that they could achieve anything and be anything they put their mind to. She told me that she hadn't seen anything like this since Dr. King, whom she met in the 1960's.

  • A group of construction workers told me I was "preaching to the choir" about Obama, because their pastor had told them all about the campaign and Obama. I heard this a lot- pastors played a tremendous part in the grassroots campaign. Those of you from the south aren't likely surprised how entwined religion and politics are, but I guess I had never seen it in action. I walked away grateful that the pastors were on our side.


Everyone was genuine, friendly, and sincere, and I really recommend the experience to anyone who has a passion and wants to help others understand their motivation.

Friday night we went to a volunteer meeting and heard a rousing speech from a community leader who stressed the historical legacy of this time in Williamsburg County. No only had no presidential candidate ever come to their county, he said he had never seen so many people of the community get involved and participate in their government. It moved him almost to tears to talk about how long he had been in the community and how proud he was to be able to help mobilize for a candidate he truly believed in. I walked out energized and ready to take on Primary Day.

Saturday brought surprises and interesting challenges. I had two jobs during voting day: throughout the course of the day, I was on standby to do "Voter Protection" work, which is a fancy term for lawyers (and law students) who make sure that everyone at the polls gets a chance to vote and those associated with the Obama campaign, like poll watchers, etc., weren't denied the ability to do their jobs.   There were several other attorneys and law students in the area, so I only ended up handling one issue. Around 6.30 a.m., we were called to a voting place in Kingstree where the (white) poll captains were denying our (black) poll watcher from being able to check off the  number of voters and those who are Obama fans (that's legally allowed). Our poll checker was a 17-year-old who was very frustrated and confused when we arrived. He didn't want to confront the women directly, but kept saying "I just want to be a part of history." After sweet talking the poll captain and politely informed her of his right to poll watch, she made a call and came back fairly agreeable. I was nervous  while we tried to handle the situation because I wasn't familiar with the underlying racial tensions of the community, and didn't know how I'd be received. Some of the locals had warned us that tensions ran high, and there had been some church bombings of black churches in the area just a few years ago. In the end, the incident went off without a hitch.

My second job turned out to be far more interesting. My job as a "runner" required me to go to three targeted precincts several times throughout the day and obtain various information from the poll watcher. I would take the information back to the Obama local "staging area," where we'd call the Obama supporters on file who hadn't yet voted. Our staging location had about 20 or so volunteers in and out all day, many of whom had slept there the night before to prepare everything. There was food, laughter and a common mission to share. Joining the student cohort was a carload of University of Connecticut undergraduates who drove 17 hours on Friday and were going back Sunday morning. The hubris of the young! I had to take a nap at one point, having gotten no more than about 10 hours of sleep the previous nights. After 3 visits to each of the precincts, I returned to the staging area to help the phone people make the final push of calls to get people out to vote. The day's organization was tremendous. Volunteers knew what to do, who to call if they had questions or concerns, and where to go. I was very impressed.

Me and another law student left our posts and drove straight to Columbia for the big rally. We were anticipating a victory, but didn't know until friends and loved ones called us to report the big news that Obama had cleaned up. In Williamsburg County alone, he beat Clinton by 58 percentage points, and the county had record turnout.

I know this is long, but I wanted to share my experiences with you. After hearing Obama's victory speech (which moved me to tears), I am more convinced than ever that Senator Obama not only could be president, but should be. His ability to use a message of hope to rally people to possess a vested interest in change. This is a man who has convinced thousands of Americans to participate in their government, many of them for the first time.

Politics by design are decisive. Many believe they have no place in social or academic relationships. Forgive me for thinking that's crap. If I believed in the most reliable and trustworthy vacuum cleaner, or stain remover, I wouldn't hesitate to share my discovery with those I love. And while those who do know and love me know that the odds of me USING a home appliance or stain remover are slim to none, the analogy is nonetheless useful. This is no different. We may not agree. But the discussion is half the battle.

Thank you for reading. Please email me if you want to talk, share a response, or have any specific questions about Senator Obama and his positions. I'd also encourage anyone to visit his website to learn more.