Sunflower County, Miss., in 1985 seemed a relic of a dying era.
Traveling across the South at the 20th anniversary of passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, my assignment was to assess the impact of black political participation on the nation's most stubbornly segregated region.
In Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., and even Edgefield County, S.C., home to Sen. Strom Thurmond and a political family tree of racist predecessors, much was changing.
But in Sunflower County, political power was proving as elusive as a skittery kid goat. Three of five residents were black, but every elected official in the county — save a lone school board member — remained white.
In the wake of Barack Obama's historic victory last Tuesday, I was curious to see how times had changed in Sunflower County. Sure enough, two more decades under federal protections have erased the fears and hesitations that lingered in 1985.
Sunflower County residents cast 70 percent of their ballots to elect the nation's first black president. But as stealthily as ancient taboos and intimidation kept black voters from realizing the full measure of their might in 1985, a white culture unable to let go of racial prejudice stymied black ambitions in Mississippi in 2008.
Painted in a swath of red, the Deep South cast its lot with the GOP as forcefully as it has done in almost every presidential election since Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy turned the tide on the region's white votes.
Of the seven states originally covered by the Voting Rights Act, due to their history of black voter repression, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina remained solidly red.
At the geographic margins, however, erosion has set in. North Carolina, by the slimmest of margins, defected from that unholy alliance. And Virginia, by a whopping six percentage points, voted to install the first African-American occupant in the White House.
Why here? Why now?
Why in 2008 did the Old Dominion abandon the solidarity that had kept it firmly in the Republican camp in every presidential election since Lyndon Johnson unleashed the full force of black political ambition with the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
The most obvious answer — that an influx of outsiders has turned Northern Virginia, culturally and economically, into a place apart — figures mightily in the equation. But that's not the whole story.
A few years back, insiders liked to say that Virginia minus the Washington D.C. suburbs would be Mississippi. That's not quite right either.
The Northern Virginia explanation comes close to accounting for the 2006 election of Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, who carried only four of Virginia's 11 congressional districts in his victory over incumbent Republican George Allen.
Three were in Northern Virginia, and the fourth was the heavily African-American 3rd District, stretching from Hampton Roads to Richmond.
By contrast, Obama carried six districts, including those same four, plus the 2nd (Norfolk and Virginia Beach) and the 4th (including Chesapeake, Suffolk, most of Chesterfield County and territory between). In the 1st District (including eastern Virginia's Peninsula, Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck), Obama fared better than Democrat Tim Kaine in his 2005 race for governor, as well.
Clearly, at least in eastern Virginia, there's a willingness to look beyond race that hasn't penetrated key portions of the Deep South.
In part, Obama's success in Virginia reflects the precariousness of the economy and the times. Racial identity can seem a lot less pertinent than policy when voters are hungering for stability. Demographics play a role as well, as does history. In general, Obama succeeded in areas that are more urban, more populous and more diverse. There's simply greater experience with multicultural cooperation in such settings.
As for history, no one needs reminding that there's been a deep racist strain in the commonwealth since colonial days; there's also been a countervailing awareness of and sporadic loyalty to the nation's idealistic focus on equality and individual merit.
When George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison aren't just founding fathers but native sons, it's harder to ignore the grandeur of their vision (even if they sometimes lost their moorings themselves).
Yes, Virginia was the birthplace of Massive Resistance to school integration in the 1950s. But in the 1970s, it produced Gov. Linwood Holton, a Republican who became a national model by enrolling his children in largely black public schools. And in 1989, it did what few thought was possible, becoming the first state to elect a black governor, L. Douglas Wilder.
That history laid a foundation for Tuesday's Virginia results.
Where Obama performed more poorly than Kaine was in the five districts that make up much of central and western Virginia. Obama found pockets of surprising strength, including in Staunton and Winchester. But for the most part, any inroads were marginal to nonexistant. His showing was particularly disappointing in the 9th District, an almost exclusively white, mountainous southwest region. Despite economic troubles and a tradition of cross-partisan voting, Obama garnered less than 40 percent of the vote there.
Reasons for such results obviously extend beyond race. In the 9th, for instance, Republicans campaigned heavily on the charges — denied by Obama — that he was anti-coal and anti-guns. But it's impossible to ignore the racial implications in some of the numbers.
In the usual Democratic stronghold of Buchanan County, Obama lost by 5 percentage points and turnout (53 percent) was the lowest in the state.
“I hate to say this, but I believe a lot of Democrats just couldn't vote for him,” the chairman of the Buchanan County Democratic Party told The Roanoke Times.
“I think a lot of it is prejudice,” added the vice-chairman of the Democratic Party in nearby Dickenson County, another Democratic stronghold carried narrowly by John McCain.
Confronting such sentiments will be among the opportunities and challenges facing the president-elect. Odds are that superficial differences like skin tone will fade as decisions on health care and energy and the economy take center stage. With luck, sheer familiarity will lessen prejudice.
If that happens, the Old Dominion can once again lay claim to John Adams' famous tribute: “We all look to Virginia for examples.” Even in the states of the old Confederacy, race no longer need dictate election results. S
Margaret Edds is a former editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot who is based in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.