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Published: 6/7/2008

Obama candidacy speaks to us all

BY ROSE RUSSELL

"When you think about all the people who had knocked down barriers for me to walk through this one, the challenges they went through were so much more difficult, so much more severe; and the risks they took were so much greater. Last night, standing in the auditorium, it struck me that it was a testimony to them." - Sen. Barack Obama, the day after obtaining enough delegates to become the Democratic presidential nominee

THE first time I was elated about a presidential candidate was when my father became fond of John F. Kennedy. I was too young to understand it all, but I perceived my parents' excitement and sense of hope about Kennedy at a time when households like ours desperately needed it.

The next time I was so inspired about a presidential race was during the Democratic National Convention in 1992 when, in her keynote address, Barbara Jordan declared with certainty, "We can do it." We did, and that elation returned that November when Bill Clinton was elected.

Those occasions, however, didn't bring the euphoria that overwhelmed me Tuesday night when it was apparent that Barack Obama had enough delegates to be the 2008 Democratic nominee for president of the United States.

Many thought they'd never see a black American achieve this status. For a while, I forgot some of the agony that blacks endured at the hands of those who considered slaves, freedmen, and their descendants inhuman or less than human.

This comes in a year that marks history in numerous ways. It was 401 years ago that the first British colony was settled at Jamestown in Virginia, the site of the arrival of the first Africans here in 1619. In 1808 it became illegal to import slaves. And when the heinous institution of slavery ended with the Civil War, its clenches evolved and other types of restrictions were imposed.

Jumping years ahead, it has been observed that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee will address the DNC on Aug. 28, the same month and day 45 years ago that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his historic "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Anyone with a little knowledge of history probably thought about some of the people Senator Obama may have been referring to when he took note of those who came before him and demolished racial barriers. It appeared that's what he was pondering when he struggled - perhaps overcome with emotion of the moment - to begin his address Tuesday night.

He acknowledged that the severity of what those historical figures confronted exceeded his challenges during the primary season. And what he will face in the coming months, no matter how tough, can't compare to what they endured either.

Some abolitionists, educators, and civil and voting rights activists worked all their lives, or had their lives snuffed out by the hatred that Senator Obama wants to eradicate from the minds and hearts of every American. Those who worked tirelessly so minorities could have the right to vote probably gave little thought to one obtaining the nomination for the nation's highest office.

That long list includes whites and foreigners as well as blacks. Among them were Mary McLeod Bethune, William Lloyd Garrison, Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Ida B. Wells Barnett, William Wilberforce, Viola Liuzzo, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

To be sure, the media make a bigger deal out of Senator Obama's race and historic rise to the nomination. Not once Tuesday did he refer to any of that.

He has not promoted himself as the black candidate or the mixed-race candidate. There's no reason to. We see who he is, and we know he was raised by a single mother, then by his grandmother.

Senator Obama did not come through the ranks of privilege and boast a sense of entitlement, and generally, Americans may more readily identify with Barack Obama than many of the recent occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Even if he doesn't talk about it, it is necessary for us to take note of the historic nature of his nomination.

Besides, it seems that his background was destined to prepare him for time. He is a composite of more than one race, has lived in foreign nations, has been fed with food stamps, and knows the difficulty that a single mother encounters. He is familiar with women's plight and will reach out to them. He will also try to embrace all working-class people of every race.

Though he is obviously familiar with the downtrodden, he efficiently and effectively mingles with the haves. His eloquence engages, and his constant reference to others instead of himself is refreshing. As he said, his accomplishment is a testimony to those who came before him.

Barack Obama is not God. And if he wins in November, he will not be able to work miracles - at least not without God's help.

But after years in the doldrums of politics, it's really nice to be excited again about an upcoming presidential election.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com



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