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Denogean: Tucson activist sees life’s work pay off

Obama presidency worth it, he says

Samuel Newsome, a longtime civil rights activist in Tucson, said "Nothing this side of hell" was going to stop him from attending the inauguration of the nation's first black president Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Samuel Newsome, a longtime civil rights activist in Tucson, said "Nothing this side of hell" was going to stop him from attending the inauguration of the nation's first black president Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

It would take more than freezing temperatures and health problems to keep 70-year-old Tucsonan Samuel Newsome from attending the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.

“Nothing this side of hell is going to stop me from going to that inauguration,” Newsome said Friday. “This is the completion of the Civil Rights Act.”

Newsome is an African-American who spent his childhood in segregated Mississippi and his adulthood registering minority voters in Arizona. The election of the nation’s first black president is a repudiation of the society that once was and a validation of the work it took to get here.

“All the years that I have worked as an activist in the community, it paid off. It was the icing on the cake,” Newsome said. “It might be long coming, but it came.”

Newsome, a retired master carpenter and general contractor, is the longtime president of the Southern Arizona chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. The institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of black trade unionists founded in 1965 to fight for racial equality and economic justice.

Since 1974, with Newsome at its helm, the local chapter has registered more than 50,000 people to vote. But Newsome has been registering voters since 1965 as part of his involvement with labor unions.

Newsome came to Tucson from Mississippi in 1955 at age 17. He sums up the segregated South he left in two words: “It sucked.”

Jim Crow laws. Separate bathrooms, separate restaurants, job discrimination, housing discrimination and education discrimination. In Arizona, Newsome certainly would face prejudice and discrimination but not anywhere near as oppressive as what he left behind in Mississippi.

Here, he was able to learn a trade and build a life for himself and his family. He joined a labor union in 1959. He registered to vote for the first time in 1960, years before any of his family members in Mississippi did so.

“I called and told them I registered to vote. They said, ‘One day, we’ll be able to do the same thing,’ ” Newsome said. “I was able to vote before my father, my aunties, my cousins, my mom,” Newsome said.

While he cast his first vote in a presidential election for John F. Kennedy, his family was disenfranchised by intimidation, violence and ridiculous voter registration requirements.

“A lot of people was told that they had to recite the constitution of the state or pay poll taxes,” Newsome said. “They had to tell the poll workers how many bubbles were in a bar of soap or how many mules it takes to fill about a barn that’s 300 feet long by a 1/2-mile wide. It was difficult. It really was difficult for people to register to vote.”

Newsome encountered a different kind of resistance to voter registration in Arizona during many years of going to door to register voters in Tucson’s poorer neighborhoods. It came from the people he was trying to help.

“I was threatened not by the establishment, but by individuals who did not want to register to vote and didn’t see how registering to vote helped any minority person,” Newsome said.

He met many who had no faith or understanding of how government could work to serve them. Newsome was called “a damn Uncle Tom” and worse.

He recalled one man threatening to beat the hell out of him if Newsome didn’t get off his doorstep.

Many people asked why he would waste his time.

“‘You’re not getting paid. Why are you out here doing this?’ ” they’d ask.

“Not all things you do in life you get paid money for,” Newsome said. “You get paid in satisfaction.”

The ultimate, unexpected culmination of his life’s dreams and work came on election night, Nov. 4.

He was sick in bed with the flu. But the announcement that Obama had enough electoral votes to win was a tonic like no other. As the returns were announced on television, Newsome jumped up and screamed, “We did it.”

“We got to go,” he said to his wife, Barbara, demanding that she get dressed so they could celebrate with local Democrats at the Tucson Marriott University Park. He and his wife later got tickets to the inauguration from Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.

“I’m 70 years old and that’s something I never thought I’d see: a black man or woman as president,” Newsome said.

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.

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