As Democratic and Republican political leaders across the nation gather for their respective national party conventions (Democrats this week in Denver and Republicans next week in St. Paul), one among the thousands is a standout: Inez Crutchfield.
The spry 83-year-old Crutchfield, a retired Tennessee State University physical education teacher, is attending her seventh straight Democratic National Convention. It is a record of service that gives Crutchfield the distinction of being one of the delegates with the longest continuous convention participation among both parties, activists across party lines say. The Denver convention will also be her last.
“I finally decided this year, it was time for me to give this up,” Crutchfield said in a recent interview at her home in Nashville as she was preparing to head to Denver. “Anytime you can take a little country girl from Watertown, Tenn., and say ‘I’ve been to seven national conventions, been a guest at the White House and had breakfast with the vice president of the United States, someone else, another young person, or young woman, should have this opportunity. I’ve just had the best of the world, as far as the political side is concerned,” said Crutchfield, a 1947 graduate of Tennessee State who was a forward on the school’s women’s basketball team during her years there.
The political landscape Crutchfield participates in today is a far cry from what she and her parents experienced in the South in the 1940s.
During her college days, few Blacks and Hispanics could vote, never mind aspire to be a party leader. They were barred from political participation in most Southern states by literacy tests, poll taxes, inaccessible voting places and outright intimidation by town fathers, all enforced by state laws and administrative practices designed to limit the participation of racial minorities and the poor in the political process. There were no campus voter registration drives and few students of color doing door-to-door canvassing for candidates.
Then, in the 1960s, came the Voting Rights Act. The federal law barred nearly all discriminatory voting practices in the South. The law empowered millions of racial minorities to vote. It also put in a process for reviewing the fairness of Congressional election districts designed by state legislatures. While not all voting rules in Nashville were as tough as others parts of the region, Crutchfield was a beneficiary of that sweeping change in laws and attitudes about Black participation in political party decision making.
Crutchfield, a 30-year member of the Democratic National Committee, has rank as a party super delegate, meaning she can vote for presidential nominees as she pleases at the national convention. She also sits on the party’s credentials committee, the panel that spent several days this spring trying to resolve a bitter party battle over whether to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, states that violated party rules this year in holding their caucus and primary elections.
It’s been a busy year, said Crutchfield, dressed in a stylish two-piece red suit highlighted by an ornamental flower and Obama for President button.
This spring, when the Democratic presidential race seemed neck-and-neck between Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Senator Barack Obama, D-Ill., super delegates like Crutchfield were being besieged by workers for both candidates and news reporters around the country, as it briefly appeared super delegates would have to decide who the party nominee would be. Despite the hounding for an answer, she watched both campaigns intently through the spring and finally, in June, decided to back Obama.
“I’m enthusiastic about Obama,” said Crutchfield, who has seen many a nominee come and go – Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Albert Gore Jr., John Kerry. “I have seen gradually over the past years, the vote going down, especially the African-American vote. But I have been so impressed with him (Obama). When he was keynote speaker in Boston (2004), it was the first time I was aware of him. I found myself standing up in the (delegate) seat acting crazy. Screaming. I was not alone. It was absolutely unbelievable. I wasn’t thinking about him in terms of running for president, but I was absolutely impressed.”
Up until the final days before this week’s convention, Crutchfield said she would still get an occasional letter or call from an unhappy party loyalist asking her to change her vote to Sen. Clinton.
“One lady called and said “I won’t vote for him (Obama), nobody in my family will vote for him, no one in my neighborhood will vote for him and no one in my church will vote for him,’” Crutchfield said. Her response, in her signature decisive-but-polite tone of voice: “I will vote for him, everyone in my family will vote for him, people in my neighborhood will vote for him and people in my church will vote for him.”
Crutchfield said she plans to stand in her delegate seat and cheer again when the Obama nomination is voted upon Thursday night. “This is special,” she said. “It’s a history-making convention. I’m hoping he will be the nominee. There will be some really angry people in this country, if he is not.”
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