Alabama (AP) — The sign going on the front door at the Perry County courthouse reads: "Closed for the Obama Holiday."
The rural, mostly black county has proclaimed Monday as an official holiday celebrating the election of the first black U.S. president, Barack Obama. It's one of Alabama's poorest counties, but it's sparing little during five days of festivities.
County employees, as well as city workers in Marion and Uniontown, will get a paid holiday Monday as government offices close, culminating a series of events including an old-fashioned civil rights rally and march, a golf tournament, a weekend carnival and a parade Monday through Marion.
"I feel great about the holiday," said county maintenance worker Leon Brown. "It's history. It's the first time ever we've had a black president. I hope it's not the last time ever."
Located in the heart of the economically depressed Black Belt region named for its rich soil, Perry County is sparsely populated, with a little over 11,000 residents, and an unemployment rate of more than 18 percent, one of the highest in the state.
County Commissioner Brett Harrison, who cast the lone "no" vote when the commission voted 4-1 to set up the holiday, questions adding a paid day off in such a poor county. He said the county already had 14 paid holidays and it didn't seem like the right time for such an ambitious event in the middle of a recession.
"The timing didn't make any sense," Harrison said, pointing out that many private businesses will be open Monday, including his full-service gas station.
The Obama holiday was proposed by Commissioner Albert Turner Jr., whose father was one of the marchers beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" voting rights march in Selma. Many of the marchers were voting rights activists from Marion upset about the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson during an earlier demonstration in the town.
Turner, taking a break Friday while participating in the Obama Holiday Golf Tournament, said it's only right to celebrate the election of the first black president.
"We hold holidays for Columbus and for Lincoln. There's been no event more historic in my lifetime than the election of Barack Obama," Turner said.
He said another reason for the holiday was to let the nation know the role Perry County played in protests that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act which outlawed discriminatory voting practices that effectively disenfranchised African-Americans. Some of the events recall the demonstrations.
"It's not that we're celebrating Obama. We're celebrating America living up to it's creed that all men are created equal," Turner said.
Activities Friday included a jamboree at Marion Military Institute, where high school students from public and private schools in three counties had a chance to meet with representatives of colleges from across the Southeast and were given instructions on how to apply for college.
Fransia Foster, president of the Marion branch of University Women of America, which sponsored the event, said it was planned before the holiday was established. But she said the coincidence was appropriate.
"Look what education has done for President Obama and his family. I think this ties in very nicely with the holiday," Foster said.
Roshawd Shepherd, a junior at R.C. Hatch High School in Uniontown, said he's only 16, but will be old enough to vote for Obama if he runs for re-election in 2012.
"I think he's made a big change in our community and the United States. If he does the things he says he's going to do, I'll vote for him," Shepherd said.
The host of the golf tournament Friday, Democratic state Sen. Bobby Singleton said he hopes publicity surrounding the holiday will help lure new industry and jobs to the depressed region.
But Michael Brooks, a Judson College professor who is a Republican Party official in Perry County, wondered if the five days of events celebrating Obama's election wasn't a little too much for the small, poor county.
"I question whether we needed another paid county holiday in the middle of a recession," Brooks said. "For the first year, it seems it could have been a bit more modest."
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