SUMTER, S.C. — Jesse Jackson Jr. was bound and determined to get some unregistered voters on the rolls. If only he could find them.
But the first door the young congressman knocked on belonged to an elderly man who already had a valid voter card.
Next door lived a retiree who had done better than simply register herself. She had a sheaf of her own registration forms handy in case there were any stragglers among her holiday visitors.
Eventually, Jackson just decided to give a rousing pep talk for his fellow canvassers, fifteen volunteers who paused on a street curb to listen.
“This is God’s work in the vineyard,” Jackson said. “You are on the winning side.”
A high rate of registration on his call list was good political news for Jackson, in town over the weekend to promote his friend and fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. Most of those he visited were fully registered, Obama-friendly voters.
But as he worked his way around the state in the final days before the Wednesday registration deadline, Jackson — son of the civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, who twice sought the presidency — couldn’t help but see things in more sweeping terms.
In a region with a history of disenfranchising its black voters, African-Americans are poised to play a critical role in the selection of the Democratic nominee.
“People on the South Side of Chicago are waiting to hear from the state of South Carolina,” Jackson told one gathering in Columbia. “People in Harlem are waiting to hear from the state of South Carolina . . . They are waiting for you to write a new chapter.”
That arguably happens even before the first vote is cast. Democratic officials deliberately set the early primary in South Carolina to give a greater voice to African-Americans, who account for roughly half the Democratic voters here.
Democrats are competing hard for their support and addressing the things they care about. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Obama especially have been working to identify supporters and to make sure they’re eligible to vote.
Republican candidates also worked to reach their voters before the registration deadline for their Jan. 19 primary passed last week. The rise of the South Carolina primary for the GOP likely gives more influence to the state’s heavy concentration of social conservatives, who have traditionally had a strong say in the Iowa caucuses.
But for Democrats, this is an unprecedented opportunity. Their last big voter registration push took place in the past few days and weeks, in advance of the day-after-Christmas deadline. The Edwards team say they registered more than 900 high school seniors one recent day.
Clinton’s volunteers worked the phones and went door-to-door over the weekend, and also made a few final stops at the barbershops and beauty salons that have become a point of competition for Democrats this year.
And for Obama, Jackson flew down from Chicago to campaign, participating in one canvass in a multi-racial neighborhood of large brick ranch-style homes and tidy lawns.
Angela Willis came from just a few blocks away to help him out. The Saraf-Tulsky family drove down from Durham, N.C., in their SUV.
Danny Kim arrived in a car full of volunteers from Atlanta, and kicked off the afternoon canvass with the familiar Obama call-and-response: “Fire it up!” and “Ready to go!”
“You’ll be able to tell your high school classmates you were out here for Barack Obama,” Jackson told Noah and Zeke Tulsky, both young teenagers, as they set out. The boys and their parents ended up registering three voters.
Jackson wasn’t so lucky. His first stop was at the home of Caroline Bohanon, a retired radiologist and Air Force colonel who didn’t need to be registered.
She had papers in her kitchen, and had already signed up eight voters of her own — including a granddaughter home from college at North Carolina’s High Point University.
“Is she going back to campus . . . “ Jackson started to ask, but Bohanon was way ahead of him.
“She’s already voting absentee,” she said.
Next door, Edward Porter also turned out to be a registered voter of long standing. As long as Jackson was on his doorstep, though, Porter wanted to express his concern about Obama’s safety as a fellow African-American seeking such a high station.
Jackson paused by a white rocking chair on Porter’s front porch for a few minutes. He talked about Martin Luther King’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which the civil rights leader told a Memphis crowd that he cared less about dying than about working for freedom and equality.
King was assassinated the next day, he reminded Porter.
“In a sense, it was his last will and testament for us,” Jackson said. “We have to move beyond fear.”
Jackson was 3 years old at the time of that speech, the same age as the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 to protect poll access for minority voters in South Carolina and other Southern states.
As he headed toward his car to go to a town hall meeting nearby, Jackson said he thinks of the current effort in the same terms.
“This is not a generation of Americans that is separate and apart from any other struggle that women have undertaken that led to the 19th Amendment, or that African-Americans have undertaken that led to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments,” he said. “These are profound historical revelations and times.”
As the congressman left his doorstep, Porter asked the name of the young man to whom he’d been speaking.
“That was Rev. Jackson’s son?” Porter said. “Wish I could have let him sign me up.”