For most of his life, Duke opted out of politics, including the simple act of voting. The reason: Voting in the South of his youth could be dangerous; later, he came to see politics as corrupt and voting as pointless.
He has held many jobs and launched several businesses, but he also spent years on the street. He now lives and works at the Salvation Army Center of Hope in Greensboro, an emergency shelter. Staff members there urged him and other clients to vote – and they set up registration on-site and offered rides to the polls during early voting to make that outcome more likely.
In the end, Duke says, he voted for Senator Obama not because he’s black, but because he’s the first politician since John Kennedy to promise change – and look as if he meant it.
“People are hungry, and it’s going to get worse,” he says. Could Obama make a difference? “I think he will,” he says.
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From boyhood, Duke saw politics as forbidden territory.
Born in Vicksburg, Miss. – one of 14 brothers and seven sisters – he cut cotton for $3 a day and swept the floor at his father’s blues club, the Blue Note Cafe, while attending a one-room delta schoolhouse.
One strong memory of his childhood was seeing a photograph of the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was tortured and murdered for “insulting” a white woman in Money, Miss, about 100 miles northeast of Vicksburg. Duke was 11 then, just three years younger than Emmett.
“It was a frightful thing,” he says. “It’s as if they were trying to say: ‘Nigger, stay in your place.’ ”
The conviction that politics is for other people proved hard to shake. Duke’s father, who upon separating from Duke’s mother brought the baby boy to live with a grandmother, apparently never considered trying to vote.