Black Delegates Also Bask in Obama's Big Moment

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 27 -- Lena Taylor, a Wisconsin state senator from Milwaukee, is "overwhelmed" by the history that will be made Thursday night, when Sen. Barack Obama will become the first African American to accept a major-party presidential nomination. Add in that his acceptance will come on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, that it has been 40 years since Robert F. Kennedy predicted the country might elect a black president in four decades, and that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy made a dramatic appearance here this week, and the symbolism boggles her mind.

But Taylor also knows that some Democrats gathered in Denver may not want her and others to get too carried away in celebrating Obama's racial breakthrough, lest it distract from the overriding goal of driving home the party's message on the economy and other issues. Top Democrats, union officials and others have spoken openly this week about the challenge Obama faces among white voters who are inclined toward the party but may be uncomfortable voting for a black presidential candidate. And Obama himself has tried throughout the campaign not to focus explicitly on his role as the first African American with a serious shot at the White House.

It reminds Taylor of the reactions she sometimes receives from other Wisconsin legislators when she mentions she is the chamber's only black female member. And it will not stop her from speaking out about what she is feeling now.

"I talk about it because our sense of pride gives hope for other individuals, too. That kind of hope and pride inspires other people into action," she said. "For those who do not want to have that dialogue, I recognize that. But for those of us who are proud of this moment, we are not going to squash that."

Other black delegates here described a similar frame of mind: immense pride and wonderment at the thought of Obama accepting the nomination, coupled with a keen awareness that for many of their fellow Democrats, beating Sen. John McCain is the priority. The black delegates said that they share that goal with no less intensity -- but that on this day, they could not help but pause to reflect on the history being made.

Michael B. Coleman, the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, thinks of his great-great-grandmother Margaret Dean, who was born into slavery in Virginia and later sold to a plantation owner in Kentucky. She lived to 104, outlasting all of her many children, before dying in the 1940s. As far as Coleman knows, Dean, whose picture hangs prominently in his office at City Hall, never voted. That there is now a black presidential nominee, only six decades after the death of a forebear of his who spent three decades in slavery, brings Coleman up short.

"If she were alive, she would be immensely proud of my being the first African American mayor of Columbus," he said. "But she would not have even conceived of the possibility that a black man or woman, a person of color, could become president of these United States of America."

Coleman, one of the first mayors to endorse Obama, said he feels no compunction about fully celebrating the symbolism of the moment. "You don't run from your roots. You embrace your past, and you represent everybody," he said. "This is a good thing for America."

Emma Allen, 58, thinks back to her childhood in rural Texas, between the towns of Giddings and Dime Box, watching TV images of violence against civil rights marchers. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Now, for me to be here . . .," she said, her voice trailing off. Her parents were activists who tried to get other blacks to vote, despite poll taxes. She carried on the work as a precinct chair in Fort Worth. She realizes that even some younger African Americans may not want to dwell on Obama as a "first," but said they just don't understand.

"With younger people, they haven't lived it," she said. "But with older people, there's no way if you were born in my time and world, to think that you would see this happen."

Iris Salters, 63, the first black female president of the Michigan teachers union, recalls her small high school in the state's southwest, where white families were upset that she had edged out a white boy as valedictorian. "There were certain things we knew we couldn't do. You could have the second-best grades, but you knew when you were pushing up to the line and crossing over it," she said. She urged all Democrats to mark Obama's moment.

"There are some people here that are afraid this may in some way take away from their status, but this is not a black thing or a white thing," she said. "There are some majority people who are afraid of that. But if we're not all rowing in the same rhythm, we're going to go in a circle."

Some said they felt no anxiety about celebrating. Donald Williams, 57, a lawyer from El Paso who attended segregated schools in Houston, said that "one of the greatest strengths" of the Democratic Party is that it accepts everyone. Not that anything would stop him from observing, anyway. "Being an African American and not being sensitive to the historic nature of this is just a fallacy," he said. "I've always been involved in politics, but I always had to 'settle for.' This is the first time in my adult life I've been really excited. This is going to show that America's precepts are not just rhetoric."

For Mohamed Jibrell, 57, a Somali immigrant in Minneapolis, the significant came with a twist -- not only were Democrats nominating a black man, but also one with recent East African roots. As he saw it, the uplifting nature of the nomination lay in Obama's success in appealing across racial lines. "It's not so much that he's black. That's why it is historic, but that's not why people are excited. What's exciting is that he is transcending."

For Tori Hill, a delegate from Eden Prairie, Minn., the significance lay as much in the elevation of Michelle Obama as a potential first lady as in her husband's nomination. The sister of three high-achieving professional women, Hill sees in Michelle Obama's success traces of her family's advancement -- which is why she brought her three children with her to Denver, even if it meant her teenage son had to miss his first football practice and his pre-semester enrichment classes. "This is a blessed moment," she said. "This is America's time. This is the people's time."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company