Obama’s Shirt

Moses Mack was born on August 4, 1922 in Mississippi, at Money in LeFlore County. It was the evening of his 90th birthday which, by providence, fell on the final day of the Mack Family Reunion, held this year in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles. Widower Moses lived with his son and daughter-in-law in Victoria Park, and he boasted three children still alive, eight grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren so far.

He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, listeners were left to reflect on the simplicity and wisdom of his insights for hours, and sometimes days. During the reunion week, the family had a meet-and-greet soirée, a fashion/talent show, an ice cream social, a trip to the beach and a barbeque. On Saturday, Papa Mack’s birthday, they enjoyed a pot-luck dinner at the home of his only son, Benjamin.

After dinner, lights were turned out, and the grandchildren presented Mack with a huge cake, under ninety burning candles— quite a spectacle. And then came the gifts, many thoughtful, but none remarkable, until the last.

Mack’s great grand-daughter held up a black garment bag, which she asked her great grandfather to stand and unzip, and when he opened it, she held up a shirt. Of course, family members seemed a bit confused at first, but Ashanti explained.

“You all know I’ll be going to USC, but I’m working at a hotel this summer to help out with expenses. Well, I couldn’t tell anyone back then, but in June, the President stayed at the hotel where I’m working. Security was really tight when he was there, but things got back to normal after he left.

“The next day, when I got a chance, I went into the room where he stayed—just for the thought of being in the same room where he was. I just wanted to breathe the same air, and then I saw it, from the corner of my eye. I didn’t believe it. There was a shirt left in the closet, behind the ironing board. When I looked at it, I could see it had been worn, and I could smell the cologne. I checked on my iPhone, and there it was— I saw him wearing the exact same shirt when he made a speech the day before.

“When I took the shirt to my supervisor so we could send it back to him, she laughed and said it was just a shirt and that he probably had hundreds of shirts. I asked her if I could take it home to give it to my Papa Moe for his birthday, and she said, ‘go right ahead.’ I thought it would be the perfect gift for you, Papa: Obama’s shirt.”

Papa Mack hugged his great-granddaughter, tears in his eyes, as he held up the shirt.

“Hang it up where they can all see it.”

And in this room of fifty or more children, grandchildren and extended family members, Moses Mack stood there, drying his eyes.

“I could not have asked for a better gift, not just for me, but for all of us.”

He looked toward Ashanti.

“Your boss was right. It is just a shirt, but it has a special meaning to an old man like me. I never thought this shirt could have been possible in my lifetime.”

He closed his eyes, remembering.

“When I was thirty years old, I figured I wanted to vote, for the very first time. I wanted to vote for Mr. Eisenhower, cuz I thought he cared about us, you know—colored folks. Now back then, they had what they called a poll tax, but that was just to make sure colored folks couldn’t vote. I was a sharecropper, finishin up two bad years and workin at the cotton factory, so two dollars per person was alotta money to me. And in some places—even if we had the money to pay, they’d change the rules and tell us the tax had to be paid a year ahead or for three years in a row before we could finally vote. I followed the rules. I paid mine a year in advance, so I was ready.

“Back then, votin was something special. You got all dressed up to vote. I wore my best JC Penney suit and my Stacy Adams shoes. So I went to the poll, and there was a big ol fat man there, the county registrar, and the first thing he said was, ‘What you doin here, boy?’ Well, when I told I come to vote, he told me I had to pass a literacy test. Of course, I was a college graduate from Mississippi Valley State, so that was fine, till he ask me the first question.”

“How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?”

“I almost laughed,” Moses said, “Cuz I didn’t imagine he could be serious. I mean, did he even know? So I guessed at it, to go along. I said something like, ‘Well, now that would be the quantity, less the ratio of the weight over the volume, cubed, and divided by pi.’”

“Pie ala mode!” he shouted. “Wrong answer! Now you go on home, boy. You can’t vote.”

“When I told him I wasn’t goin home, he looked up my name. Then he said, ‘Moses Mack—do you like your job?’

And I said, ‘Sure, I do.’

So he said, ‘Come Monday, you ain’t got no more job at the cotton factory, and I’m gonna talk to the boss over at the plantation. They tell me you’re over at Pete Duke’s place. Are you sure you still wanna vote?’

“It was a hard decision for me. I had three babies, and Martha was pregnant with the fourth, but I knew it was important ta vote. Otherwise, what I thought didn’t matter, so I told him, ‘I am here to exercise my right ta vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, and you can threaten me, but you can’t stop me.

“It was the first time I ever voted, and I felt proud to mark that ballot. I felt American—like I was finally part of this country. My family was proud. Hell, the whole neighborhood was proud. And then, two days later, they come and burn down my house—burnt up the crops in the field, everthing. They liked ta come got me in the middle of the night and lynched me, I heard, so I took the family and moved up to Greenwood. And since that day, I’ve always voted, and I’ve made sure that all my family made good on that right. And four years ago, I cast an impossible vote to help elect the first black president, but not because he was black, and not because I agreed with everything he said. I cast that vote for me, and for all of you—so my family would know that votin is the most important thing we can do as a family, as a proud people.”

The room was silent as he finished. Benjamin, Mack’s son, was touched by his father’s words. He stood, hugged Papa Mack and nodded.

At sixty-four, Benjamin a stout man, always clean-cut and dressed in conservative attire. His mocha-toned face was round, and his hairline was in a double-dip recession. When his father sat, he glanced over at the shirt, hanging at the front of the room, and he began.

“I was eighteen years old in 1964. Back then, our family was still in Mississippi, though we had to move every four years after the general election, due to Daddy’s voting habit. In those days, Mississippi was probably the worst place in America for a black male to turn eighteen. When I was nine, they lynched Emmit Till, right down the road from where I grew up. And they killed a whole family the next year—nine people. And every year, we heard about someone getting beat up or strung up, or their house burned down—sometimes for trying to vote. In June the year before, they shot and killed Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary, right in front of his house.

“But in other ways, it was a dynamic time and place to turn eighteen. We were forced by the situation in the South to confront the certainty of our convictions. If we wanted the killing to stop, then we had to do something about it. If we wanted an end to segregated lunch counters, drinking fountains, theaters, hotels and restaurants, then we had to make it known where we stood, in no uncertain terms.

“I marched for civil rights when I was eighteen, but it wasn’t easy. A group of local boys caught me out one night and beat me so bad I was in the hospital for two days. And when I got out, I went right back to the picket line. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t just about segregation and Jim Crow. Title One was about voting rights, ending the poll tax, making sure questions on literacy tests were in writing and only given to people who hadn’t finished the sixth grade. But the intimidation factor was still there, the threat of losing your job, or having your house burned down, or being killed for exercising that right. Those without conviction were too scared to vote, and so they didn’t.

“I voted in my first election during November that year, I remember, but I almost missed out. That’s because a group of official-looking white men in fancy cars and hats came into our neighborhood and knocked on doors, telling everyone Election Day had been changed from Tuesday, November 3rd to Wednesday, November 4th. A lot of people were fooled, but not Daddy. He told our neighbors it was a trick, and then we got dressed up, wearing our fanciest clothes and shoes, and he took me to the polling place and watched me vote for the first time— the same way he did for all his kids. I voted for Lyndon B. Johnson—the president who later signed the Civil Rights Act into law.”

He glanced again at the shirt, hanging there.

“Four years ago was the first time I voted for a president who was younger than me—skinny, and still a little wet behind the ears, but a decent man who cared about this country. What brought tears to my eyes, though, was the sheer number of black youth who got involved in voting, and older blacks who had lost their passion—to see them hoping and voting again.”

Benjamin became choked up, feeling a little embarrassed.

That’s what that shirt means to me.”

His daughter stood, tears in her eyes, extending an arm toward her father, who had sat. Sofia seemed much younger than her actual age, which was forty-two. She wore a bright blue African print sundress. She was thin, with an angled face, and her long hair was a medley of twists and curls.

“Thank you, Daddy. Of course you all know my name is Sophie, and I’m here representin the third generation of Macks at this reunion. Holla— we in the house! Anyway, my father moved us to Los Angeles when I was three, so I missed out on all the Mississippi drama, but Daddy always reminded me, and Papa Mack—whenever we went back to Greenwood or I saw him—he’d tell me.

“Growing up in California, I always heard stories about the segregation, intimidation and the disenfranchisement games they played in the South to keep African Americans from voting, but I didn’t get it. I mean, how could I—growin up here? Daddy had a good job, working at the Port of Los Angeles as a senior dock supervisor and then as a superintendent, so I didn’t grow up thinking anything needed to change. To me, my life was fine.

“And when I turned eighteen and my father told me to get dressed up so we could go vote, I went along, but I didn’t see the point. It was the presidential election with the first George Bush running against Michael Dukakis. I was young. I didn’t know who either of them were or what they stood for, but I remember I voted for Bush, because my best friend said she was voting for Bush.

“After I finished college, I got busy working with Xerox as an engineer, and I have to admit—a couple or a few elections went by where I didn’t vote at all. I would always think about voting, but I was just too busy. I’d let Election Day come and go, maybe feeling a little guilty, because I knew how important voting was to Daddy and Granddaddy.

“Truth be told, I just got cynical about it. I didn’t think it made a big difference whether I voted or not. Then I got married and had kids, and it was only after I got involved in the PTA and local community issues that I realized individuals could make a difference on every level. That’s when I realized you have to fight for the things you believe in—for yourself and sometimes for people who can’t fight on their own.

“So I just kept on fighting and fighting until I wound up on the school board, where I saw how important it was to have the right people in the right places when tough decisions had to be made. People can deny it all they want, but our government makes a big difference in our lives, and that’s why it’s so important to make sure our voices are heard.

“I understand what my Daddy felt. During the last presidential election, I got involved in a registration drive for first-time voters. It was an experience I will never forget. On my first day, I helped register a young man who was the first male in his family to graduate high school in three generations. And on my last day, I picked up a ninety-three-year-old woman from a nursing home and drove her to the polls, where she voted for the very first time in her life.

“When I look at that shirt, I think of all the people like me, who felt disenfranchised, or were just too busy or caught up in individualism to realize we are really just one big community, all of us. And in that community, everyone should have a voice— everyone, from the idealistic college student, to the soldier or veteran, to the circumstantially homeless person, and right down to Miss Collins, who is ninety-seven now. She called me just the other day to make sure I would be able to drive her to the polls. I thank my daughter, Ashanti, for sharing Obama’s shirt with all of us. This has been a great experience.”

Finally Ashanti stood, smiling. Her face was pretty and her jet-black hair was braided, hanging down her back. Two months earlier, she was the valedictorian at her high school with a 4.75 GPA, earning an academic scholarship to study political science and pre-law at USC. She looked from Papa Moe’s face to her grandfather’s face, from her grandfather’s face to her mother’s face, and out toward the family. Clearing her throat, she stood up straight, mindful of her posture, and she began.

“I really want to thank everyone here for being in the room, for us being able to share this part of our family, our history, our values and the meaning of this shirt together. I will turn eighteen on August 30th, at the end of the month. I am already registered to vote, so in November, I will vote for the first time in my life.

“As I listened to Papa Moe and Granddaddy, I thought about how hard they must have had it. I can’t imagine someone so determined to vote that they would risk losing their job or their life, and I can’t imagine getting beat up and confronting anger and hate—just because I want to have a voice. And Mama’s right—sometimes, living in California, we take the right to vote for granted—we forget that there were people before us who struggled, suffered and even died so we would have that right.

“My best friend and I still talk on the phone every day, even though she moved to Columbus, Ohio before our senior year. So when I hear from her what’s happening in Ohio and Pennsylvania and other states, it makes me really sad. I’m disappointed that most of America is still sitting down on this issue—even the decent people. It makes me sad that so many fair-minded Americans are not willing to stand up for millions of their struggling fellow citizens who, after all these years, are actually losing their right to vote.  That would be like telling my Papa Moe, who has voted in every election since 1952, that he can’t vote this year because the photo ID in his wallet was issued by the state of Mississippi, and not by California. He’s still my Papa Moe, no matter who issued the ID.

“They say they’re doing it to eliminate some elusive voter fraud problem that has never been documented. The only tricks being played now are by those who are proposing the new rules, requirements and obstacles that are no less arbitrary than asking the question, How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap? It’s a sad day in America when decent people won’t stand up for what is right.

“These enemies to voting see a problem with us voting—just as some did in the 1950s, and so they want to repeal key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. And just like it was in Papa Moe and Granddaddy’s day—they’re targeting groups who they can’t persuade to vote against their own best interests. If, by playing this game, they can eliminate enough voters to change the outcome of the election, then all I can say is, Shame on America, the model of democracy, for opening the door to rigged elections.

“When I look at that shirt, I see the challenge for the next generation. Like Granddaddy said, our challenge is to confront the certainty of our convictions. Someone’s got to stand up today, in 2016—like Papa Moe did in 1952 and my grandfather did in 1964. As the next generation, we have to unite across state lines, across regional and generational divides, and even across political party affiliation to stand in opposition to this new assault on voter’s rights.

“Papa Moe, I realize I’m only seventeen, so I don’t know much. But being in this family has taught me to appreciate the sacrifices you made, the struggles you endured and the profound gift you gave us. And when I go out to vote on November 8th, it won’t be only to pick a president or to support a party, but for the future of America, for the tradition and right to vote—the democracy that makes us unique, that makes us that shining city on a hill, a place where dreams come true. But most of all, Papa Moe, this first vote for me will be to honor you—in recognition for the inspiration and voice you gave to our family.”

Ashanti smiled, walked over, and hugged Papa Moe hard, whispering words of gratitude. For the hour and a half that followed, the entire family sat in the room with the shirt, sharing stories, opinions and ideas. As the night carried on, family members dispersed to their homes to prepare for the final event of the reunion: the Sunday morning religious service. The family would meet at Benjamin’s house in the morning, and all would go church from there.

On that next morning, Benjamin Mack woke up to discover the shirt was missing—Obama’s shirt, the same shirt the family had left hanging in the room on a hook above the hearth the night before. Confused, he asked around the house to find if anyone had taken it down, but the rest of the family was no less perplexed. He even called Ashanti to determine if she had put it up for safekeeping, but she remembered the shirt still hanging there when her family left.

As relatives began arriving at the house for breakfast, the mystery intensified, as no one could imagine what had happened to the shirt— that is, until fifteen-year-old Malcolm took a seat at the breakfast table. Grandma Nita, Ben’s wife, was first to look over and notice. And before she could say anything, Cousin Jerome noticed. Without saying a word, he tapped Aunt Callie, who gawked, before clearing her throat and speaking out.

“Malcolm Malik Mack! Where on God’s Earth did you get that shirt?”

In that moment, all eyes at the table trained on the young man, who had no idea why he was so suddenly the center of attention.

“What? What did I do?”

The distinctive collar made the shirt immediately recognizable. Papa Ben erupted in anger.

“Boy, what the hell have you done?”

“Oh! This shirt?—I saw it hanging in the room when we were leaving last night, and I needed a shirt for church. I thought some family member who already left forgot to take it, so I took it home.”

He still didn’t understand.

“I washed it, cuz it kinda had a little ring around the collar. And I cut the sleeves off, cuz I get hot in long sleeves. What’s wrong? It’s just a shirt!”

“Where were you last night?” Ashanti demanded. “You mean—you don’t remember anything we talked about?”

“I was here!” he answered, defensive. “I was here till we cut the cake, but then Cousin Bill and I—we left and went to the movies downtown. Why? What did I do?”

“That was Obama’s shirt. Obama wore that shirt. It was a special ninetieth birthday gift for your Papa Mack.”

When Malcolm realized what he had done, he bowed his head, ashamed. Feeling condemnation from the entire family, he looked toward his great grandfather, tears in his eyes.

“I’m so sorry, Papa Moe. I didn’t know.”

He stood, removing the shirt.

 “I’m sorry. I know I’ll never be able to make this up to you.”

Moses Mack sat for a moment, scanning the angry and disappointed faces of family members seated at the table and standing about the room. The shirt was ruined, but the unfortunate circumstance presented a rare, teachable moment for the entire Mack family.

“Y’all stop.Y’ all back off on that boy,” he said. “Don’t give him a bad time about it. He’s right. It’s just a shirt—something that can be eaten by moths. We will sew pieces of it into the family quilt. But it’s not the physical shirt that matters anyway. What that shirt meant to us last night—in spirit and symbolism, is a treasure we will all carry forward for the rest of our lives.”

Moses smiled at the boy.

“We had quite a night—but you weren’t in the room, were you?”

“No, Sir, I wasn’t. I’m sorry.”

“Then next time—you have to make sure that you are inside the room and don’t miss out. And the discussion we had last night—we’ll have it again, maybe many times more, and we’ll make sure next time to bring you along.”

“And I’ll come along! Thank you, Papa Mack. I love this family!” Malcolm smiled.