Dateline: Houston

The View from the Fifth Ward


Deidre Rasheed, Democratic field organizer in Houston’s historic African-American Fifth Ward neighborhood, was having an anxious election night. She’s a professional organizer, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get emotional about the results. Nothing was coming in fast enough. “Pennsylvania!” she yelled at 7:40 p.m., when CNN and ABC called the state for Obama. Rasheed had canvassed for Obama in Pennsylvania, and she remembers the word people used, the slur they said they’d never vote for. Their hatred still burned in her memory.

“Girl, how old are you?” said an older woman guarding the gate to the phone room at Obama headquarters. “Thirty-seven,” Rasheed said. “You mean you don’t know about hate?” the older woman said, laughing about it. “That hate has always been around.” Maybe she had to laugh about it after growing up under segregation all those years.

While the Republicans, led by Sarah Palin, sneered at Obama’s background as a community organizer, they ought to have shown a little more respect. Obama won not just because George W. Bush has been such a dismal president, or because the economy is in the tank, or because Obama is a better speaker and McCain has been so erratic and his vice presidential choice so lightweight.

Obama won largely because he is a community organizer. No one understands that better than the African-American community in Houston’s Fifth Ward, positioned roughly north of the Ship Channel and east of State Highway 59. Obama was the first presidential candidate ever to set up a campaign office in the Fifth Ward.

Obama personally trained the field organizers at the top levels of the campaign, Rasheed said. “The whole model was organized by Obama himself.”

The top organizers in turn trained the next layers of organizers. Everyone gets the same training. This is a fundamental principle of community organizing and will, thanks to this campaign’s success, be considered fundamental to political organizing for a long time to come.

The Fifth Ward has been organized for a long time already, says Bob Lee, a veteran community organizer. In 1944, Lonnie Smith, a Fifth Ward dentist, took a lawsuit asserting the black right to vote in Texas’ Democratic primaries all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won. Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland took seats in Congress on the shoulders of Fifth Ward civic leaders, educators, and organizers.

Bob Lee’s younger brother, El Franco Lee, has been Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 1 for 20 years, seldom facing a serious opponent. (He ran against a Libertarian this year.) In large part this is because Lee is so intimately tied to community service. His brother Bob has worked ceaselessly with the poor, scrounging clothes and food and furniture and jobs for those in need. Community organizers work all the time, not just at election time.

I spent a couple of hours talking to Bob Lee and David Benson, who works in the Precinct 1 community center. They recounted the history of the Fifth Ward for a while, then they got to recalling segregation. When Bob was about 6 or 7, in the early 1950s, his mother dressed up and walked from the nightclub she ran on Lyons Avenue-Lee’s Congo Bar-to the Armstrong drugstore to vote. In those days, white poll watchers set up voting booths in the Fifth Ward, but that didn’t mean everybody could vote. Bob’s mother left him outside to play while she went in to cast her ballot, and when she came out she was crying. She died in 1970, never having voted.

Benson and Lee talked about the terror their parents felt back then, how worried they were if the boys didn’t phone in to let them know where they were.

When they asked me why I wanted to be in the Fifth Ward to watch Obama win the election, I choked up. I couldn’t speak. They sat quietly until I pulled myself together.

On election night I sat in the Fifth Ward Obama headquarters and watched the celebration. When Ohio was called for Obama, it seemed as though an ugly part of the past was erased.

I don’t believe for a moment that our racial problems have been solved with this election. But the cultural meaning of this election is impossible to ignore.

Obama is not exclusively a black man, Lee and Benson reminded me. He is a biracial mix of black and white. And he’s where he is because of the efforts of a lot of people before him.

Bob Lee brought up Obama’s grandparents, the white Kansans who raised him and loved him and had their own run-ins with racist fears. “We should kiss those grandparents,” he said.

Michael Berryhill teaches journalism at the University of Houston.