African Americans Exult in Historic Leap

Many local African Americans regard Sen. Barack Obama's acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination at the convention in Denver as a milestone in the country's history.
Many local African Americans regard Sen. Barack Obama's acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination at the convention in Denver as a milestone in the country's history. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Tim Craig and Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 25, 2008

For Deborah Ross of Greenbelt, the sight of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama standing on stage this week to accept the Democratic nomination for president is something she knows her daughter, Miranda, has to experience even though it means she will miss her first week of her senior year at Eleanor Roosevelt High School.

Although she is not a party delegate, Ross, 48, is in Denver for the Democratic National Convention, and Miranda is with her. "This is history," said Ross, an African American who was an early Obama supporter. "It is something that I knew I had to see and I wanted her to see. It is something she will never forget and something that she will be able to share with her children."

Eight years into a new millennium and nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the nation is poised to make a historic leap with its first African American at the top of a major political party's ticket.

In the often strange brew of U.S. race relations and presidential politics, that fact sometimes has seemed to slip to the background, but not for millions of African Americans who for months have been riding a roller coaster of pride and hope and worry about a potential black first family.

"I am just overwhelmed," said former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, who became the nation's first elected black governor in 1990. "I don't think the American people have awakened to what's happening the next couple of months. The possibility of an African American president? Think about it. Look how short of a period it's been since we came from slavery."

The symbolism of the moment will be elevated because Obama will accept the nomination Thursday, the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

"It is one of a number of very important milestones for the African American community, but this is going to be the highest," said Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute and Scholar Practitioner Program at the University of Maryland. "Our people will be thinking of that and what King would have thought of it as well: 'Does it really mean a post-racial, post-civil rights America?' "

Former Prince George's county executive Wayne K. Curry, of Upper Marlboro, a convention delegate who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), said he is taking his wife and two children to Denver. "When it became apparent that Barack would be making his acceptance speech on the anniversary of the great "I Have a Dream" speech, the symmetry to the era was just too much to resist," said Curry, who integrated a Cheverly elementary school in 1959 and went on to become Prince George's first black county executive.

"I spend a lot of time trying to teach my children that in many respects their destiny is in their own hands. I try to expose them to people and events that reinforce the idea that racial and social progress are generally the result of a lot of hard work and sacrifice by lots of people over a very long time. Barack's [nomination] stands as a milestone to the sacrifices of thousands of people who preceded us all in the struggle for equality, and I wanted my children to see this process . . . to make tangible the lessons I've been teaching them."

Ross and Curry are exceptions rather than the rule when it comes to witnessing history up close this week. For the majority of the country, the activities in Denver will play out on television sets. And for African Americans, it will be an extraordinary moment on a continuum, stretching from the days when many crowded around radios to hear boxer Joe Louis land blows against Jim Crow in the 1930s and '40s.

Some Washington area residents said they plan to host parties, and some said they might let their children stay home from school Friday if they stay up late Thursday to watch the speech.

"It is going to be a capacity crowd in front of televisions in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland," said Bernard Hill, 70, an African American Obama supporter from Ashburn. "I have not heard one derogatory remark from anyone saying, 'Oh, I am not going to watch.' There is a very thick air of excitement about this particular speech."

William D. Euille, who grew up in a public housing complex in Alexandria but then became the city's first black mayor in 2003, said Obama's nomination "represents the hope, belief, that if he can do it, others can certainly follow."

James Hudson, a D.C. lawyer who has raised money for Obama, said he grew up in the 1960s never thinking he'd see the day a black politician would be a serious presidential candidate. "The issue of discrimination and slavery has been about since the founding of the country," said Hudson, an Obama delegate from the District. "This is the beginning of the resolution of it. . . . Historic is probably an understatement."

But Melinda Chateauvert, an assistant professor of African American studies at the U-Md., cautions that it will be years before the historical nature of Obama's speech can be put into context, depending on whether he wins and which policies he pursues as president.

"I think some people view it too symbolically, and they are not asking tough questions about what this means in terms of policy," Chateauvert said.

Even so, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), said he will be thinking of his father, who died in 2000, when he hears Obama's acceptance speech this week.

"My mother and father were former sharecroppers, and I can still remember when we would go to my grandmother's [in South Carolina] in the 1950s. They would sit us down and tell us if a white person was walking toward us, always step into the streets, and never look at a white woman," Cummings said. "Now I see the possibility that a family of color could be occupying the White House. It is a quite a distance for people of color to have traveled in such a short period of time."

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