GREENWOOD, S.C. — Barack Obama may be able to give passionate campaign speeches that inspire people, but when it comes to firing up a crowd, he's no Edith S. Childs.
Since her days of helping to organize voting drives and working in South Carolina civil rights efforts, the tiny Childs has become a local legend for being a dynamo able to bring audiences to their feet — and the polls — with her booming, fiery, cheerleader-style chant of "We're Fired Up Ready to Go!"
Which became Obama's signature campaign slogan, thanks to her.
Childs, all 5 feet 2 inches of her clad in purple from her church hat to her shoes, had Obama getting funky — or as funky as a United States senator running for president can get — when she joined him on stage at Greenwood's Lander University Tuesday and led her chant.
Never miss a local story.
"We're fired up! Ready to go! We're fired up! Ready to go!" Childs chanted, prompting Obama to chant and dance with her. "Go out and vote! Go out and vote! Senator Obama! Senator Obama! Senator Obama! Will be! Will be! Our next! Our next! Our next! Our next! Pres-si-dent! Pres-si-dent!!"
Childs, 59, is an unabashed Obama Girl whom the campaign has adopted and incorporated into the senator's political message — that hope and inspiration can trigger change.
"I'm an Obama girl — next to Michelle (Obama), of course," said the surprisingly soft-spoken Childs. "I'm one of those people who knows how to get people energized. When you do something like that, it has a domino effect."
Childs has become Obama's living response to rivals such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who says he's an eloquent speaker, but that it takes more than talk to get things done.
"It shows how one voice can change a room," Obama said of Childs during the rally in Lander University's basketball arena. "If one voice can change a room. And if one voice can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change a world. One voice can change the world."
The "fired up" chant has taken on additional meaning for Childs because of the sometimes racially tinged back-and-forth between the Clinton and Obama campaigns. She said she's disappointed in remarks that former President Bill Clinton has made about Obama.
"I believe in this life what's in you comes out," she said. "He (Clinton) says he's the first 'black' president, but he speaks in a different tone when he talks about the senator (Obama). I expected better from him."
Obama met Childs in Greenwood by chance last June. Trying to secure the endorsement of an influential black state legislator, Obama agreed to visit the upstate town, not realizing just how far out of the way it was from Greenville, S.C.; Atlanta and other cities.
After a late flight and a 90-minute drive from the Greenville-Spartanburg airport, Obama said he settled into his hotel, had a short and fitful sleep, and woke to a miserable wet morning to go to a church and meet residents.
Accustomed to large crowds, Obama entered the church and found only 30 or 40 town folks waiting for him. As he pressed the flesh with the tiny pool of prospective voters, he said he was startled when he heard someone yell from behind "Fired up!"
"I didn't know what was going on, but everybody else in the room just said, 'Fired up.' Then I heard a voice say 'Ready to go,'" Obama recalled. "I turned behind me and I see this woman, about 5-2, 5-3. She's dressed like she's going to church; she's got a church hat on. She looks right at me, she smiles and she says 'Fired up!'"
What Obama didn't know at the time was that Childs was a county council member and a local fixture known for her church finery and chants. Over the years, she has become the South Carolina black community's version of Michael Buffer, the ring announcer who introduces professional boxing and wrestling matches with his federally trademarked phrase "Let's Get Ready to Rumble."
Childs hasn't trademarked "fired up" because she didn't create it — it came out of the civil rights movement, she says. But she has taken it on the road, doing the chant for several candidates seeking office in South Carolina.
When Obama first heard Childs' chant, he thought she was just trying to get attention.
"I'm thinking 'She's upstaging me, when is she going to be done,'" he recalled. "But here's the thing, Greenwood, after a little bit, I was feeling kind of fired up, I was feeling like I was ready to go. So I joined in the chant."
The chant energized Obama's campaign staff, which kept telling the senator that they were fired up. That led to T-shirts and an appearance by Childs a campaign rally in Aiken and a shout-out to Childs by Obama last month during a rally in Columbia with Oprah Winfrey that drew 30,000 people.
Now Childs talks about taking her Obama chant national. She's already a hit on YouTube for her Aiken performance. Might there be an appearance at this summer's Democratic Party convention in Denver?
"I imagine at this point she can have whatever she wants," said Kevin Griffis, an Obama South Carolina campaign spokesman.