The small poster just below the knob on the front door was startling. It was a drawing of a muscular hand holding a pistol pointing straight at us, saying, “Nothing in here is worth dying for.”
It was too late to run. We’d already knocked, and the door was opening. But there was no need for alarm. The homeowner greeted us civilly, listened to our 60-second speech, accepted our campaign material, and we left.
My friend and I, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with our candidate’s name and “let’s go higher” campaign slogan, were campaigning in our small city of Selma, with its population of 18,000, for our candidate for City Council president.
We put our feet to the pavement in the old style of door-to-door campaigning in our Selma “ward,” which encompasses many different kinds of people, from multigenerational owners of antebellum homes to renters in simple shotgun houses near a closed lumber mill and residents of a federal housing project.
Our city is losing population and revenue and has struggled with poor leadership the past four years as the mayor and City Council have been at odds. This year was a chance to change that, as the mayorship and most of the council seats were up for grabs.
We were thrilled when a good friend — talented, intelligent, and approachable — was willing to tackle those problems. Warren “Billy” Young, a many-generation resident of Selma, knows law and finances, worked statewide on complex issues, served in the city on boards and was a mentor to many youths, and had a disarming ability to bring diverse people together to work for common solutions.
We felt he would meet the criteria of a great council member, “being mindful of the needs of the City; who has the intelligence and desire to do the hard work of thoughtful legislation; and who will ask polite but tough questions to ensure that taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.” No front-door gun posters, fake barking dog doorbells, or sweltering heat could deter us.
Canvassing for a Local Candidate
In fact, while national campaign rhetoric can be both divisive and dispiriting, getting involved in a local campaign was edifying and encouraging. It opened the door to conversations with our neighbors, giving us a chance to hear their stories and learn about their deep love for the city. Contributing to local campaigns, either through time or money, is important. Local races often affect your day-to-day life as much as federal or statewide races, if not more so.
Despite the many differences in the people living in our ward, we all share a desire to see our city shine and to solve problems that affect our daily lives. Residents here want to see solutions to the problems that often get ignored — more policing, better-equipped police and fire departments, consistent trash pickup, clean up of burned houses, and filling of potholes.
Two years earlier in our ward, for example, a police officer had been shot and crashed his car. The department simply didn’t have a bulletproof vest to fit this large, muscular man. These problems beg for solutions.
The campaign started in July, a miserable month to be outside knocking door-to-door while wearing a mask, and ended with a run-off election in October. We kept hitting the pavement after work each week because we were committed to Selma’s future and because we could testify directly to Young’s integrity and intelligence.
During those many weeks, my campaign companion and I walked down crooked sidewalks, past trash piles with peculiar smells of rotting somethings, under canopies of moss-draped oak trees, past children playing basketball in the alley, and alongside beautiful flower gardens, to antebellum homes where the women once sewed their silver in their petticoats when the Yankees came to town in 1865, and past skeletons of homes that had burned, homes that were falling down, and homes being rebuilt.
We met lovely people, polite and receptive. A few didn’t come to the door, but most did — old, young, African American, white, with and without kids, quietly listening to our quick pitch for our candidate. Some asked questions. Others reflected on what they thought needed to be done: police, fire, trash, potholes.
Embracing Human Connections
Those people-to-people connections made smiling behind a stifling mask in the Selma summer heat worthwhile. Talking to locals also taught us that in a relatively small town like ours, it is not just the candidate who is running but also his parents, his community service, and his siblings. Our candidate’s father had been a math teacher in the public schools for over 50 years — first in the segregated black high school, then as the first high-level math teacher in the integrated high school and community college. Both African American and white residents remembered what a great teacher and person Young’s father was.
We met one 82-year-old woman who was taking care of an elderly blind woman. She proudly told me she was the 1954 R.B. Hudson High School class valedictorian, and she remembered Mr. Woodrow Young, her math teacher for 10th-12th grade. We met Billy Young’s YMCA childhood swim teacher as well as a former neighbor who remembered Billy singing on his front porch as a child. Many people we met had worked with Young on projects to improve Selma.
Campaigning one evening with Young, I introduced him to one of my older neighbors. She welcomed Young to take a seat on the porch with her to share his vision. “Is Wanda your sister?” my neighbor asked.
“Yes, she is,” Young replied.
“I taught in high school with her for years,” she reminisced. “She’s a great person. You’ve got my vote.”
Walking door to door in Selma, we were also reminded of the work of the city’s foot soldiers who 56 years ago had marched for the right to vote, just as Young’s father had. In 1965, African Americans were 50 percent of the city’s population (today it’s 80 percent) and 2 to 3 percent of the registered voters. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they took their message to the nation, and by August 1965, Congress had approved the Voting Rights Act.
One gracious older couple invited us inside, the only such invitation. We were so startled, we forgot about COVID-19 (although we were wearing masks) and accepted. As pastor at a local Missionary Baptist Church, Mr. B knew our candidate and remembered his exuberant singing. He would be voting for Young, he said, and his wife said she would too.
They told us about their family — two grown children and grandchildren, all nearby — his wife’s work for a local insurance company, and their favorite TV shows. They said their neighborhood, where they had lived for 20 years in a house built by a local doctor in 1920, was quiet, but that it was hard to meet new neighbors because people “mostly keep to themselves,” which can be lonely.
“Back when I was growing up, a black person could never own a house like this in this neighborhood. We couldn’t even walk on this sidewalk. I grew up in west Selma, living on the alleys. The alley I lived on was King Alley,” Mrs. B told us as we were leaving. “Now, here I am, living on King Street! The Lord has brought us a mighty long way!”
Loving Our Neighbors
Our last stop on the last day of campaigning was a simple wood house with a small porch. A basketball backboard stood at the end of the narrow street in this neighborhood that had seen better days. Children were playing with a puppy and bouncing the basketball when their mother came to the door.
The woman talked about getting her seven children signed up for online school and the struggles that came with it. She remembered our candidate when he tutored at her high school 15 years earlier. He had a gentle but commanding presence, she remembered, and her classmates were texting each other about voting for him. “He’s the real deal,” she said.
As we chatted, we learned that because of COVID-19, she had lost her job as a home health care worker and had recently been diagnosed with cancer, a disease that had taken the life of her mother and grandmother. It was clear she was struggling as she tried to balance out-of-town radiation and chemo treatments with her children doing school at home.
That night, a friend asked if I knew anyone who could use bunk beds. Later, neighbors donated food, clothing, and cash for car repairs, and they offered rides to her cancer treatments. One neighbor took her children to an art event at the local library, just blocks away, and got them all library cards.
The ancient law of Leviticus commands us to love our neighbors, as the gospel also reminds us. While pounding the pavement for a candidate might not seem to be a “love your neighbor” experience, it can open the door to engage people you live near but don’t know, allowing strangers to become true neighbors and providing an opportunity to serve.
The investment is most gratifying, however, when the vote comes in and your candidate wins.