Growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s and ’60s, Deddrick Battle came to believe that the political process was not for people like him — a struggling black man whose vote, he was convinced, surely would not count for much of anything. The thought became ingrained as an adult, almost like common sense. And that partly explains why, at age 55, he just registered to vote for the first time a month ago.
The other part of the reason is Senator Barack Obama.
“This is huge,” Mr. Battle, a janitor, said after his overnight shift cleaning a movie theater. “This is bigger than life itself. When I was coming up, I always thought they put in who they wanted to put in. I didn’t think my vote mattered. But I don’t think that anymore.”
Across the country, black men and women who have long been disaffected, apolitical, discouraged or just plain bored with politics say they have snapped to attention this year, according to dozens of interviews conducted in the last several days in six states. They are people like Percy Matthews of the South Side of Chicago, a 25-year-old who did vote once but whose experience was so forgettable that he cannot recall with certainty whom he cast a ballot for or even what year it was. Now an enthusiastic Democrat, he says the old days are gone.
And Shandell Wilcox, 29, who registered to vote in Jacksonville, Fla., when she was 18, then proceeded to ignore every election other than the current one. She voted for the first time on Wednesday.
Over and again, first-time and relatively new voters like Mr. Matthews and Ms. Wilcox, far past the legal voting age, said they were inspired by the singularity of the 2008 election and the power of Mr. Obama’s magnetism. Many also said they were loath to miss out on their part in writing what could be a new chapter of American history — the chance to vote for a black president.
Mr. Battle, for one, remembers growing up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis and how intimidated the adults were about voting, and that left an impression on him. The older women he knew were afraid to walk to the polls, he said, for fear of being attacked.
“I didn’t think it was for black people, period,” he said of politics before the Civil Rights era. “We didn’t have any rights, really. We were just coming into voting and everything.”
Fast-forwarding to the present, he continued: “I never thought that I’d see this day. I never thought I’d see the day where an African-American was standing at the podium getting ready to be president.”
The swelling ranks of the newly enthusiastic are also the result of extensive nationwide voter registration drives and new early voting procedures in many states that have made the process easier and more accessible.
David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, said the states with the largest increases in early voting have been those where the black population is proportionally the highest. In Georgia, for instance, blacks represented a quarter of all voters in the 2004 presidential election. So far this year in early voting alone, they make up 35 percent of all voters.
“I am fully expecting record black turnout,” Mr. Bositis said. “It’s not just a question of Obama as the first black nominee; it’s also that African-Americans have suffered substantially under the Bush years and African-Americans have been the single most anti-Iraq-war group in the population.”
He added, “Obama is like the icing on the cake, but it’s not just a question of Obama.”
One early voter in Georgia was Armento Meredith, 43, who waited in line for two hours at the Fulton County Government Building in downtown Atlanta to vote for the first time on Thursday. “It’s time for a change,” said Mr. Meredith, a telephone operator. “I want to see something different.”
The result is likely to be a level of black participation in the electoral process that is higher than ever before. If sustained, some of those interviewed said, it might also translate into a reinvigorated sprit of democracy in some communities where it has been long dormant.
“In the black community, I see a great many people coming out who were apathetic since ’84,” said Bob Law, 63, an activist in New York City and former radio host who worked on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the presidency in 1984, the first time a black candidate was a serious national contender. But in the years since, he said, blacks’ enthusiasm had waned.
“People didn’t vote before because they really didn’t think their vote was going to make a difference,” Mr. Law said. “Whenever black voters felt like there was a reason to vote, like it might mean something, they’ve turned out.”
That is exactly how Mr. Battle, the janitor in St. Louis, feels. In the past, “I felt like Democrat or Republican, it didn’t matter who won,” he said. “But my guy Obama? I think it’s going to be a change if he wins. He’s speaking my language.”
For some black men and women, the sense of pride is overwhelming, as is the feeling that they are participating in what could become a touchstone moment, something that children and grandchildren will want to hear about.
“I’d feel bad forever if I didn’t get out this time,” said Ms. Wilcox of Jacksonville, a cafeteria worker. “I’d feel like I didn’t do my part to put him in the office. How would I explain that to my little girl? ‘Oh, I had something better to do?’ And sure, it’s partially because he’s African-American. But he also says there will be change, and I believe him.”
Timothy Hairston, 47, a bartender in Brooklyn who has never voted before, shared that point of view. “I wanted to be a part of a historical moment, to say that I was involved in history in the making, that I was an active participant as opposed to someone on the sidelines rooting for change but not involved in the process of making change.”
He added of Mr. Obama: “I think it’s a testament to his campaign that he can inspire. At the end of the day, no matter what party you vote for, I think every once in a while there are inspirational moments that call for people to wake up from their deep sleep and become alive and get involved. And I think Barack at the very least is an inspirational figure.”
For some, coming back to political life was a slow process that unfolded over months. Others said that they were struck by something in Mr. Obama’s life or what he stands for and that conversion was immediate.
Ms. Wilcox saw some of her own biography reflected in Mr. Obama’s. They were both born to single mothers and raised mostly by their grandparents in modest settings. Ms. Wilcox said she felt validated, motivated and inspired all at once when she first heard Mr. Obama’s life story during the primary season. “I began to think that we had a lot of life features in common,” she said. “It gave me hope.”
Bianca Williams, 20, a hair stylist in Brooklyn, said the campaign had changed her life. After seeing Mr. Obama in the first debate, she decided to go back to community college part-time. “After seeing his success, I started thinking maybe I could help my community like he did,” she said. “If he could do it then I could do it. It woke me up, career-wise. It just gave me the willpower to go on.”
That is also true for Mr. Matthews, who works in a Chicago coffee shop. Not too long ago, he said, he lied to his mother about having voted in an election just so that she would stop nagging him to get out and vote. What a difference this year has made: he said he watched the party conventions and three of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates. He has followed coverage of the candidates in the local papers. He voted in the primary, and he cannot wait to vote on Tuesday.
“As I’m talking now, I’m getting goose bumps,” he said.
For Darnell Harris of Cleveland, an 18-year-old private in the Marines, the legal voting age could not come fast enough. “I’m excited that the first time I get to vote, it’s for Barack,” he said. And echoing many others, he said that race is only part of the reason. “Obama cares about everybody, whether they’re white, black, Chinese, whatever. He’s not just for one little group.”
For some new voters, family and peer pressure certainly played a role.
“Most of my life I didn’t want to get involved with anything political,” said Damien Henderson, a 26-year-old merchant seaman. “But everywhere I go lately, people are talking about Barack Obama. I could be standing in line at a grocery, and somebody’s going to ask me what I think about Barack Obama.”
Mr. Henderson said he started paying attention and fell for Mr. Obama’s charisma. He voted for the first time on Monday, for Mr. Obama.
How did it feel to cast that first vote?
“It actually felt really good,” he said.