A mother's whisper

Friday, February 1, 2008

I was raised by a grandmother and a mother, widowed at the age of 21, in the small community of Boston, Tenn. They instilled in me an admiration for the love and sincerity of Southern women. My mother was born in 1914, spent most of her life in retail, retired and died at the age of 88.

One of her closest friends was a sales associate at Wal-Mart, slightly younger than my mother, but someone with similar life experiences. Mother and Mary shared their lunch time, their breaks, their favorite foods, and stories of children and grandchildren.

Mother would relate to me the events of her day. Almost every day, those stories included Mary, her friend and confidante, and some word, gesture, or expression of friendship and compassion. At the end of her story, she would add the apologetic reminder, "Now, Mary is black."

Eighty-eight years of tradition moved my mother to tell her liberal Democrat son that she had befriended a person who generations of benign complacency had taught her was in some way not her equal.

If she were alive today, she would insist on voting in the Democratic primary. To the generations of my family, the Democratic Party embodied everything that was right and good about America. At times, some of them did not find it expedient to vote for Stevenson, Kennedy, McGovern or Humphrey, despite our sacred allegiance to the party of Roosevelt and the common folk of a rural South.

I can hear the angelic, but cynical voice of my mother saying with certainty that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton can be elected president. His or her nomination would lead to certain defeat for the Democrats and the election of another Republican like George Bush.

This makes me wonder. Would this genteel lady find in Barack Obama the same virtues that endeared her to her friend Mary? Would she hear in his words the wisdom of her Christian mother and my grandmother?

The Democrats are again faced with the possibility of losing another presidential election. Do we dare nominate a candidate of our choice, and with timidity, feel compelled to apologize for race or gender? Williamson County residents have evaded those issues in the veiled security of Republicanism. We are now 70 percent Republican in presidential elections.

The voters of Marshall County are at a different crossroad of Southern culture and Southern history. It seems to me that they have not abandoned the party of compassion for the folk of the rural South. You have retained your allegiance to the party of equality, justice, and racial and gender tolerance.

You may be tempted to resist your better judgment, discouraged by the voices who tell you Obama cannot be elected. You may question whether we have moved from the history of previous generations.

If I do not support my candidate of choice, only because he cannot be elected, how am I different from the voter who cannot bury the skeletons of segregation?

I would not argue that the election of a black president is synonymous with progress and enlightenment. However, I would argue that a decision to not elect someone we consider the best candidate, for no reason other than race or gender, is not consistent with what I believe Tennessee and a progressive South have become.

I think this primary will test the courage of Marshall County Democrats.

In Williamson County, that courage may not be tested until November. If we nominate Barack Obama, will independents and former Democrats return to the principles that attracted them originally and cast a Democratic vote?

I wish my mother could have lived until now, sound of mind and frail of body at 93. She would mark her ballot for someone she believed to embody ideal human virtues and, in defiance of tradition, whisper to me apologetically, "Now, Obama is black."

Bill Peach is a rural writer, member of the Williamson County School Board and, like Harry Truman, a haberdasher before attaining elected office.