Barack Obama’s victory last night will be a permanent feature of American history books.
The 2008 election represents the latest chapter in a story that began with Africans coming to the United States in chains.
Slavery persisted in this country until 1865. After a half-hearted attempt at Reconstruction, the nation left African-Americans in the South still shackled by the restrictive Jim Crow laws. Blacks couldn’t vote, drink from the same public water fountains or ride in the same train cars as whites.
A 1947 essay, “Can the Negro Expect Freedom By 1965?” by W.E.B. Du Bois helps underscore the magnitude of Obama’s victory.
Describing New York City, an area far more liberal than the South, in 1900: Du Bois wrote, “[Blacks] were especially limited in where they could live. They could only attend theaters in the balcony, and they were often segregated. Few restaurants received them .ñ.ñ. No New York daily had Negro reporters and usually reported no Negro news except crime.”
In that essay, Du Bois managed to imagine true freedom for African-Americans in the 1960s – but he did not go so far as to contemplate a black president.
More relevant to the modern perspective, segregation persisted in the South until the 1960s. One of Obama’s most vocal supporters, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, began his career in public life as a civil-rights activist – whose skull was cracked by state troopers during a march in Alabama.
Obama’s personal story – the son of an immigrant Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, raised with help from his white grandmother – differs from those of most African-Americans. But that does not dampen yesterday’s significance.
Blacks came out to vote in extraordinary numbers in Brooklyn, Chicago and other urban neighborhoods across much of the country – some for the first time. Indeed, the 2008 election saw historical voter participation – more than 65 percent of Americans came out to vote. That is the highest turnout percentage in the last century.
And Obama carries the standard for a new generation of black leadership. While he worked for much of his career as a community organizer, his wide-reaching political style represents a repudiation of the political efforts of prior leaders, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who are remnants of the civil-rights era.
For decades Democrats have longed for a politician who could bring African-Americans together with white working class voters. No national leader has so ably constructed a broad electoral coalition. (Bill Clinton, for example, never won a majority of American voters.) While the economic downturn helped Obama’s candidacy, his commitment to a message of unity sealed the deal for him.
His disciplined campaign remained true to the message he articulated at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America .ñ.ñ. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
During the Cold War, hawkish Democrats, such as John Kennedy, supported civil rights as a tool in the battle against the Soviet Union. They knew that America’s foreign foes would exploit the propaganda value of a segregated America.
Obama’s election turns that thinking around. His unique ethnic background is no cure-all, but it does send a powerful message to the world that America is still the home of opportunity and hope. The United States has become the first advanced Western nation to be led by a person of color.
Unlike France (where immigrants remain sequestered unhappily in suburban housing projects) or Germany (where legal immigrants face numerous hurdles in becoming citizens), in America, a son of a Kenyan immigrant can become the leader of the most powerful nation in the world.
Barack Obama’s election shows that we are powerful not just because of our military might, but because of the strength of our ideals.