PITTSBURGH — The three young black men, dressed to the nines, were the first in line to receive media credentials for presidential candidate Barack Obama's climactic rally at the University of Pittsburgh's Peterson Events Center Monday night.
Or make that Monday afternoon, since the old military system of hurry-up-and-wait is how it works these days for the seemingly endless — and increasingly tense and dramatic — series of Democratic primary contests between Obama and rival Hillary Clinton.
The day was still bright and balmy when J.C. Gamble, Darnell Drewery, and Cornell Jones, all representing a new media enterprise called blacktieradio.com, showed up at the designated glass door. But it would be getting on to 10 o'clock, with a long line strung out behind the three men, before the building's doors would finally be unlocked. And even then, all successfully credentialed entrants would have to undergo a screening process that would put the most cautious airline's procedures to shame.
A similar, though not quite as fastidious, drill had been in effect for attendees at an afternoon rally downtown featuring Hillary Clinton and her husband, the former president. Things have changed since the primary season began and all it took to get to an event featuring one of the dozen or so Democratic and Republican hopefuls was the willingness to shoulder through a modest-sized crowd for the sake of some immodest bloviation.
With only three candidates left — Obama, Clinton, and Republican John McCain — all of them potential and plausible guardians of the Free World, the public attention is keener now, the rhetoric is sharper, and the stakes are higher.
While they waited, Gamble, Drewery, and Jones dilated on every subject under the setting sun — on the relative merits of barbecue served up in the Pittsburgh 'hood, for example, vis-à-vis the heavily ballyhooed product in Memphis, where the three had just visited during the recent week of Martin Luther King commemorations.
"I gotta tell you, it don't compare," said Gamble of the fare offered by one celebrated Memphis eatery. In a more serious vein, Gamble took credit for having started the round of boos that greeted candidate McCain's admission at the National Civil Rights Museum that he had originally opposed the creation of a national holiday in King's honor.
Regardless of whether race was an issue in the presidential campaign before it surfaced during the South Carolina primary or whether it was there all along, the subject — along with the associated one of historical justice — was very much on the minds of Gamble and his friends. All of them are keenly aware of social issues, and Jones, who serves as a chaplain in the Pennsylvania penitentiary system, attended the annual April 4th Foundation dinner in Memphis as a representative of the Gathering, an activist organization concerned about issues of juvenile incarceration.
At one point, Drewery gave voice to a thought that increasingly is on people's minds. And not just Democrats. And not just blacks.
"I honestly don't know how people are going to react if Obama doesn't get the nomination," he said, and everybody was aware that, by "people," he meant those in the aforesaid 'hood. The larger one that transcends the geography of Pittsburgh. African Americans as a national group, he meant.
And then each of them described his own vision of what the immediate voter response would be.
"I think most of 'em would just stay home and not worry about voting," Drewery offered. "I'll tell you what I'd do! I'd go vote for Ron Paul!" said Gamble, indicating the Republican/libertarian heresiarch who could end up running as an independent.
"Naw," said Jones, reluctantly and somewhat sadly. "I'd be there for Hillary. I couldn't just not vote!"
Each of these three amigos spoke to a different likely viewpoint — one that, for that matter, is not limited to a particular ethnic group. The fact is, the rock-star-like celebrity of Barack Obama and the passion of his supporters are only partly related to his charisma, public positions, or oratorical skill. Whether he intended to or not, the Illinois senator has come to symbolize the near-miraculous prospect of resolving America's antique racial divide, that which some have called its original sin.
That feeling was what caused the deafening roar when, in the course of introducing Obama, Teresa Heinz Kerry later spoke to the large and diversified crowd inside of the hope of electing "the first African-American president." It was a roar that, like most sounds of that amplitude, is lasting and multidirectional.
Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.