Barack Obama became the first black man in U.S. history to win a spot on a major party presidential ticket
ISSUE: Barack Obama is the first black American to win a major party presidential nomination.
This is the country whose founding document considered black Americans three-fifths of a person. A country where blacks were barred by law from sharing the same pools, drinking fountains, hotel rooms, even wedding vows with whites just a few decades ago. Where the nation’s highest court had to force public schools to give black children a quality education on par with white kids.
America, the land of equal opportunity, has delivered a decidedly unequal reality for a number of its own citizens over the centuries, both as New World colony and world power. But we are not the sins of our past, just students of it. And there is no question the nation has evolved, imperfectly but definitively, even as recently as the days of Jim Crow and George Wallace’s defiance at the schoolhouse door.
Now comes a new milestone to mark the progress.
This week, 43 years after African-Americans were first guaranteed an unfettered right to vote, Barack Obama became the first black man in U.S. history to win a spot on a major party presidential ticket, coming from near obscurity to beat one of the biggest names in modern politics and clinch the Democratic nomination for president.
How he did it, with class and dignity, says as much about the man as the country that made his journey possible.
No matter what you think of the freshman senator from the South Side of Chicago, his politics or his chances of ultimately winning the White House, you have to appreciate this seminal moment in our nation’s history.
‘Skinny kid’ moved millions
Barack Obama, the “skinny kid with the funny name” and the biracial lineage, was able to move millions of Americans — many of them first-time voters — to do what has never been done before, in any Western country.
And the world is taking notice. Today, America is the buzz in coffee shops and workplaces around the globe, and for perhaps the first time in a long time, the vibe is favorable and America stands a bit taller, a bit straighter in the world’s eyes.
What would Martin Luther King Jr., 45 years after dreaming that his children would one day “be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” say on seeing that moment arrive on this grand stage, much sooner than many ever imagined?
Surely, he would smile. Surely, he would revel in the moment. And surely, he would say it’s still not nearly enough.
Still ground to cover on racial harmony
Obama’s place in history does not mean America is not still divided by race. The furor over the remarks of his former pastor, and even Obama’s difficulty in appealing overwhelmingly to white voters, proves there’s significant ground to cover on the racial harmony front.
And it doesn’t mean there is now a level playing field between the races. Poverty statistics, the racial makeup of U.S. prisons, the learning gap between white and non-white, and the relative shortage of black faces in the upper echelons of business and power testify to the nagging deficiencies left to overcome.
But it shows that America can overcome. If a black man can be one of two finalists for the highest office in the land, his race no longer defines him; it merely colors his story, and we all move one step closer to the color-blind society King envisioned. Already, we are the kind of society where today’s children are much less preoccupied by race than their parents or grandparents, where among Obama’s biggest support comes from the youngest voters and on college campuses, and where, had he lost the nomination, we would be celebrating a different historical marker: the first woman presidential nominee.
Campaign a horse race
Celebrating this moment is not to say Obama is the better of the two candidates for the job. There will be plenty of time over the next weeks and months to parse out the remainder of this horse race for the 44th presidency, to determine Hillary Clinton’s role in bringing her party together, to size up the strengths and deficiencies of both Obama and Republican nominee John McCain. And for voters to decide based on platforms and positions, and not on race or even inflexible partisanship.
But in these first days of Obama’s remarkable achievement, it’s fitting that a nation that once considered his ancestors no more than chattel take a moment to reflect on a black man’s arrival on the world’s biggest stage, his invitation to our country’s most important contest.
Today, America is still far from perfect, still a student learning from past mistakes, and making new ones. But if America is ever to deliver on its promise of freedom and equality, racial barriers must be broken. Obama’s historical bookmark shows it’s no longer just a dream.
BOTTOM LINE: The nation should pause to reflect this seminal moment in history. The hard-nosed campaign will begin soon enough.