For the Descendants of King's Dream, a New Day Dawns

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 28 -- No one said this exactly, but imagination was the quiet star of this day, that thing that leaps over walls and moves the fences of our limitations.

Forty-five years ago, many of those who jammed the Mall in Washington to hear a young Baptist preacher exhort the nation to be better were just trying to get the foot off their necks, win the right to vote, stay at a highway motel, eat at a decent diner. They were trying to send injustice packing. Not elect a black man president. Most had not yet envisioned that.

But imaginations have expanded this campaign season, soaring beyond the Mile-High City, where Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party's nomination Thursday night, becoming the first African American to stand before his nation and ask for its November vote.

As the masses streamed into the Denver Broncos' football stadium and took their seats in the baking afternoon sun, throats tightened and eyes got misty. And old hands shook with nervous excitement. Many had waited three hours to get in, and never considered turning around. There is a saying in the black church: "Your steps are ordered," which is to say your path is preordained, your way set.

"There are some places you just have to be," said Alice Beckwith, manager of Agape bookstore in Los Angeles, who had come with her friend Jo Keita.

"We're here to represent our ancestors. Yes, indeedy, every one of them," said Keita, a member of the Agape International Choir, which sang with John Legend at the convention on Monday night. Her iPhone was humming constantly Thursday, as word spread to friends that she had gotten into Invesco Field. "I must have spent $400 on buttons and shirts. Everybody says, 'Bring me something back.' But it's not a problem. I understand what they're feeling."

Millicent Sims of Houston, an AKA sorority sister with a pink-and-green pouch draped around her neck, sat with her husband, Samuel. "We already have our airline tickets to D.C. for the inaugural," Millicent said. "We just need him to win." The couple were in the upper-upper deck, and Samuel said, "We'd sit on the ceiling if we had to." He was thinking about his father, who worked in an icehouse, and his mother, who was a community service worker, both dead. He was getting a little emotional. "I was thinking how they'd want to see this."

In 1958, Ralph Ellison had a thought, but it was just a thought. "I would like to see a qualified Negro as president of the United States," he said, "but I suspect that even if this were today possible, the necessities of the office would shape his actions far more than his racial identity."

There is no escaping Barack Obama's racial identity, but everyone sees in him something different.

Jim and Mary Doyle drove 500 miles from Norfolk, Neb., just to experience the feeling of this history, to dream some more about tomorrow. "My first grandbaby is going to turn 1 on Saturday," said Mary, "and for me this day represents new possibilities for her. I want things for her to be different. I don't want her to get paid 75 cents on the dollar like we are." And by "we," she meant women such as she, now retired as a sales rep for a steel company.

For more than two centuries, only white boys growing up could see themselves in a president, knowing they could aspire to the highest office in the land, the most important job in the world. Not white girls. Not black girls. Not brown, red or yellow children. Not black boys, whom Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) was thinking about most. Because he is co-chairman of Obama's campaign in Maryland, Cummings said, "they come up to me. 'Is he going to be okay? Is he going to make it?' Little kids. In many instances, they can't even pronounce his name."

They just want to know if Barack Obama is going to make it.

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