COLUMBIA - Monica Naylor and her husband watched Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination with tears sliding down their faces. "We were just so proud," Monica Naylor said. "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime."
As a former Columbia Public Schools student, Naylor, 55, experienced racism firsthand. She attended kindergarten and first grade at the then all-black Douglass School before getting transferred to integrated Ridgeway Elementary. Naylor and her husband expressed what many of Columbia's black residents say they're feeling at this historic moment: pride and joy. From the older generation who grew up in segregated schools to the younger generation who have been excited by Obama's message, many have been enthused by a black man with sound policies, they say.
Lavita Higgs: “I liked (the speech). I kept saying, ‘change, change we can believe in.’”
Tausha Hall: “I’m inspired more by (Michelle Obama), her words. She’s really supportive of her husband. She’s a strong woman. How she grew up and she still made it. And as a black woman, that’s tough.”
Lavita Higgs, a 28-year-old student and excited supporter of Obama, said she didn't think she'd ever see a black man reach as high an achievement as Obama has. Higgs watched Obama's acceptance speech with two friends, including Tausha Hall, 28. The watch party of three mimicked the enthusiasm of the 84,000 who packed Invesco Field at Mile High on Thursday night for Obama's speech. Hall and friends cheered "like it was a basketball game," with occasional chants of "change, change we can believe in." They sat glued to the television hanging on his every word, excited not only for the change Obama promised, but for the change he represented to them. "I can tell my kids, ‘just because you're black, it doesn't mean you can't be president,'" Hall said. "It's something that can be done."
Exactly 45 years before Obama's acceptance speech, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famed "I Have a Dream" speech at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. King, too, called for a change on that day, Aug. 28. He hoped for a country that didn't judge based on race but on character. "We have been gradually trying to reach the fulfillment of that dream," said Arvarh Strickland, the first black professor at MU. "This nomination has been a giant step in that direction."
Strickland, 78, like King, grew up in Mississippi. Strickland also attended and taught at segregated schools. "When all of this started to happen, it was just basically unbelievable to me," he said. William Robertson, 73, a retired MU professor who previously worked with troubled youth in Chicago, also watched Obama's speech, but with apprehension. "I was praying every minute of the time that something didn't happen to him," he said. "I wanted it to go well, and I also wanted him to come out alive."
Eliot Battle, 83, also experienced segregated schools. He was the assistant principal at Douglass School for four years before integration. His eyes welled up listening to Obama, he said. "I never would have thought that I would have the opportunity to see such a thing take place," he said.
Barber Mike Hill, 41, said he thinks Obama, as a presidential candidate, has transcended the issue of race to be a candidate for all people. "What I like about the whole presidential race is it's not about race," Hill said outside Unitee Barber Shop in north Columbia. "It's about who's the better candidate, and I think Barack would be a better-suited president." "It's like the dream. I think (Martin Luther King's) dream has been fulfilled, even though he's not here to see it."
And Naylor, like Hill and many other black residents, said she is not voting for Obama just because of the color of his skin. "It's his policy that draws me to him," Naylor said. "He is the only person I think who can make a difference in the way the country is going." She said she has confidence in Obama's diplomacy skills. She also thinks Obama's economic plan is suited to help those struggling in the waning economy.
In his speech, Obama promised to cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. He also proposed to invest $150 billion over ten years in wind and solar power and biofuels to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Hall, a homemaker and mother of three, worries about the rising cost of living. She has never voted, but she's ready to now.
"I think it's important more now than ever for me and my children," she said.
Naylor thinks Obama's success is inspirational and hopes it will resonate with black youth. "It gives young black males an opportunity to look at someone that is successful and looks like them," Naylor said. "I think it builds self-esteem and makes you think anything is possible."