A two-hour drive and seven hours of standing in line was a small price for DeShea Smith to pay to hear first lady Michelle Obama speak at North Carolina Central University on Wednesday, Sept. 19. Smith and her mother, Jessee Booker, made the trip from Lynchburg Va., meeting Smith’s daughter, NCCU sophomore Nezjma Smith, at 5 a.m. They were the first people in line outside of the McDougald–McLendon Gymnasium. It was noon before the line began to move.
At 12:36 p.m., the NCCU jazz band began a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” reminiscent of the 2008 campaign. And on cue the crowd, slowly filing into the gym, began to sing along. What followed was a medley of Motown classics making the continuous wait disappear.
An hour later, chants of “four more years” filled the gym, which by then was packed to capacity; a crowd wave began. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Nezjma Smith said. “To hear the first lady of the United States is history.”
When Miss NCCU 2012-13 Harmony Cross took the stage nearly 30 minutes later, the crowd was still excited. “Your vote is important this election,” Cross said. “It takes one person to make a difference.” Cross was followed by Lt. Col. George Stephen (Steve) Wilson, who led the Pledge of Allegiance and NCCU junior Victoria Jones, who performed the national anthem. Then followed brief remarks by Dominique James, campus organizer with Organizing for America; U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat whose district includes Durham and NCCU; and Durham Mayor Bill Bell. Each encouraged people to register to vote.
NCCU senior Korey Mercer had the honor of introducing the first lady. Mercer is a first-generation college student attending NCCU thanks to financial aid. Majoring in political science, Mercer said he was pretty speechless after meeting the first lady. “When she walked on the stage and hugged me, I didn’t want to let her go.”
Entering to a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes, Mrs. Obama took the stage, telling the 3,100 gathered in the gym that she was still “feeling pretty fired up and ready to go.”
In remarks that have often been repeated since the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, the first lady recounted her story and President Obama’s. “This is an easy job talking about my husband,” she said. “He is handsome, charming and smart, but what made me fall in love with him was his character. I loved that he was committed to serving others and devoted to the women in his life.”
“In his life story, I saw so much of my own story,” she said. She described that story as one filled with pride and hope. To thunderous applause, she cited the values that she said make President Obama different. “He believes that how hard you work matters more than how much you make, and that no one gets where they are on their own. A community lifts us all, from the teachers to the janitors.”
Flashing back to 2008, the first lady reminded the audience of the challenges the country faced when President Obama took office — losing 800,000 jobs per month and a financial industry in free fall. “Instead of pointing fingers and placing blame, Barack got to work,” she said. “Today we have seen 30 straight months of job growth, and 4.6 million new jobs.”
The first lady laid out seven accomplishments of the Obama presidency:
North Carolina is considered a toss-up state and one in which both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have made campaign appearances, as have their running mates. In 2008, President Obama won North Carolina by just 14,000 votes, the equivalent of five votes per precinct.
Concluding her remarks, Mrs. Obama told the crowd, once again on their feet, “Elections are always about hope; don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Toneka Oliver, a registered nurse at the Durham VA Medical Center and NCCU alumna, is also optimistic about the country’s future. ‘We can’t turn around now,” she said. “We have to make our voice heard and vote.”