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September 6, 2012

Greenwood activist still ‘fired up’ about Obama

In the 1970s, when Edith Childs was registering voters with the NAACP as a 20-something, volunteers would encourage each other with a spirited call-and-response.

“Fired up! Ready to go!”

Over the years – as Childs turned her PTA service into seats on the Greenwood County school board and county council – the civil-rights era chant became part of her political identity. That is, until four years ago, when a long-shot presidential candidate called her while she was shopping at the Dollar General on Greenwood’s South Main Street and said he wanted to use the chant in his campaign.

“Fired up! Ready to go!” became a fixture of Barack Obama’s campaign rallies, and Childs became a symbol of what an Obama presidency promised to be: relentlessly optimistic and powered by hope.

But as Obama prepares to accept his party’s re-nomination tonight, Greenwood County doesn’t have as much to be fired up about.

The county was built around textile mills that slowly have gone out of business, pushing its jobless rate to 10.9 percent from 7.6 percent when Obama took office.

Greenwood had the steepest economic decline of any county in the country from 2007 to 2010, The New York Times declared in its analysis of 2010 census data. Its poverty rate jumped to 24.2 percent from 11.8 percent, while average household income fell to $30,808 from $42,663, a 27 percent decrease.

Those are the types of numbers Republicans have been using to try to convince Americans that Obama does not deserve re-election. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has sent GOP surrogates to Charlotte every day – including S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley – to ask the same question: “Are we better off than we were four years ago?”

Childs says yes, and she is determined to fire up Greenwood and beyond.

“Right around that first and second year (of Obama’s term), it was really tough on a lot of people,” Childs said. “But it wasn’t anything that he did, it was because it was already being done anyway.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia says Greenwood’s woes are tied to the struggling textile industry, in decline since the ’70s, when Obama “was barely born.”

But Greenwood has had some good news recently. In January, Crown Casting Industries said it would open a $16 million facility and hire 50 people. And in September, Item Southeast said it would expand its plant and hire 10 more workers.

Childs says she also is working to make a difference in Greenwood. Just before coming to Charlotte as an S.C. delegate, she hosted a back-to-school event with donated school supplies for 800 children. Next year, her goal is 1,000.

She thinks Obama’s presidency is making a difference, too.

She cites the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first law Obama signed, as an example of a positive difference. The law made it easier for women to sue for pay discrimination. Also, as a retired nurse, Childs said she knows hospitals treat patients differently if they do not have insurance. That is why she supports Obama’s health care law, which would require everyone to have health insurance. She also defends Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage: “He’s not a preacher. What he was simply saying is: ‘If that’s the life you choose to live, then you need to be treated fairly.’ ... That is the way it should be.”

Childs has been firing up Democrats all week in Charlotte.

She leads the “Fired up! Ready to go!” chant at the S.C. delegation breakfast. At the NASCAR Hall of Fame Sunday night, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz lead several hundred people in the chant. Tuesday – the first night of the convention – “Fired up!” and “Ready to go!” echoed through the hall.

Before casting South Carolina’s votes for Obama’s nomination Wednesday, Childs was scheduled to lead the chant in front of 20,000 delegates and guests.

“I will be there to fire them up,” Childs said in an interview. “I’ll do whatever I can to make a difference to get our president re-elected.”

‘Part of our theme’

Obama first heard the “Fired up! Ready to go!” chant in a conference room at the Greenwood Civic Center. It was 2007, and Obama just had finished speaking to 38 people, when Childs started singing.

“All of a sudden she just burst out. (Obama) looks, and me and I looked at him, and I’m like, ‘Somebody needs to get her quiet!’” said Rick Wade, an S.C. native who is one of Obama’s senior advisers. “As soon as she said that first ‘fired up,’ it was clear that her other friends knew to follow suit: ‘Ready to go.’ ”

A few weeks later, Childs said she received a note from Barbara Jackson, the wife of the president of Lander University in Greenwood. Jackson had been in New Hampshire when she heard Obama call out the “fired up” chant. Then, while shopping in a Dollar General store, Obama called Childs to say he wanted to use the chant in his campaign.

“I thought that was nice that he would call to ask,” Childs said.

That started a whirlwind media tour for Childs. CNN interviewed her in Greenwood in the former Brewer High School, where Childs once studied health. The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post interviewed her. She flew to New York to appear on CBS. A Japanese reporter spent the day with her. When the article was published – in Japanese – Childs said the president of Greenwood’s Fujifilm plant translated it for her.

“Her chant became ... part of our theme across the country,” Wade said. “That’s where change starts. That was emblematic of it.”

Today, whenever Childs thinks about the president – and her improbable role in his campaign – she said she remembers her grandmother, Mary Scurry, who raised her and a brother after their father died.

“She said, ‘You’re going to be someone uptown with those big folks,’ ” she said. “I guess this is what this is. I don’t know, but I’m Uptown.”

Watch a video of Edith Childs’ leading the Democratic National Convention in the “Fired up!” chant

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