DILLON, S.C. — Maggie Manning, standing beneath a faded Coca-Cola sign
on the brick siding of a dry goods store, looked down Main Street past
the vacant storefronts and slant-in parking spaces, mostly empty, and
accurately predicted that Democratic presidential candidate Barack
Obama would sweep this old mill town.
“We as African Americans have always wanted someone in the house,” said Manning, 47, on a break from work at a local retail outlet. “With Jesse, it was close but we didn’t get there. With Barack, we just might.”
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson won South Carolina in 1984, including sparsely populated Dillon County, located in the northeast corner of the state on the North Carolina border, where cotton fields and soybeans spread over a flat landscape broken up by the occasional sleepy crossroads town.
While the Jackson campaign stirred hope, Obama seemed to stir something stronger in economically depressed Dillon, where over 50 percent of households earn less than $25,000 a year and half of the black adult population hasn’t finished high school.
Riding that sense of promise, over 80 percent of African Americans voting in the South Carolina Democratic primary last Saturday cast their ballots for Obama, carrying the Illinois lawmaker to a landslide victory over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and favorite son John Edwards, who was born in the Palmetto State.
In winning 55 percent of the primary vote over Clinton’s 27 percent, Obama became the first candidate in the four early voting states to win a majority of ballots cast. Along the way, he won support from 57 percent of South Carolina voters who had never cast ballots in a primary, 66 percent of those who had never voted at all, and 67 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29.
The victory left the Obama campaign with the most votes and most delegates going into the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests in 22 states, including Massachusetts, California and New York.
With balloting scheduled for states in the Midwest and South as well, as many as half the delegates needed to win the party’s nomination will be at stake.
In the days leading up to the South Carolina primary, sharp exchanges between Obama and Clinton — particularly comments from former President Bill Clinton dismissing Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war as a “fairy tale” and downplaying the significance of an Obama victory in a heavily black state — produced a backlash of support for the Illinois senator.
Sitting behind a counter inside the Carolinas Furniture Store, owner Chuck Smith, 44, said he was uncommitted in the primary contest until hearing Clinton’s comments and seeing Obama at a rally the night before at the Dillon High School gymnasium.
“It didn’t help that I saw pictures of Bill falling asleep while Martin Luther King Jr.’s son was speaking in church,” said Smith.
“What impressed me about Senator Obama is that you have someone on the scene trying to unite rather than divide the country. What I find most exciting is that he not just talks the talk, but he walks the walk. Finally, there’s someone who can understand me and you and not get caught up the politics of Washington, D.C.,” he said.
In a region hard-hit by the closing of textile mills and diminishing demand for tobacco, Smith said Obama’s life story of hard work and persistence gave him hope that Obama would help bring jobs back to the dusty towns along the banks of the Little Pee Dee River, which winds slowly through the sandy midlands of Dillon County towards the distant Atlantic.
“I got three businesses here,” said Smith, leaning forward in his swivel chair. “I started off with nothing, working from the back of a truck. Obama worked his way up. He’s a mirror reflection of me. He can do a world of good for towns like this.”
Even though, he added wryly, Obama still had much to learn about the South.
“There were 1,000 people in that gym last night,” he said. “He would’ve had even more if they hadn’t held it on a Wednesday. Anyone who knows the South would’ve known that’s Bible study night. Lots of folk won’t miss their Scripture lessons, even for Obama.”
Further down the street, Kathy Khalil sat in the front booth in King’s Famous Pizza beneath a framed photograph of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who ate there a few years ago after his Winnebago broke down on Route 95 and got towed into town.
Khalil, a registered nurse, said she was leaning towards Edwards — who ended up winning 40 percent of the white vote in the primary — but was moved at the rally by Obama’s story of what his mother endured in her battle against cancer.
“I’m a nurse, but I haven’t been able to work because I have arthritis and had to get a knee replacement. I’m paying $1,500 a month in insurance,” she said. “Senator Obama was talking to me when he said that before dying of cancer at age 53, his mother had to fight the insurance companies over whether she’d get coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
“He’s lived it. He knows what it’s like to worry about where your next paycheck is coming from.”
Asked how she would decide whom to vote for Saturday, Khalil pointed to the ceiling.