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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.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the hundreds of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial, he was not just there to talk about his "dream."

Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. . . .

No region of the country consumed civil rights leaders more than the Deep South. King mentioned Mississippi four times in his speech.

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

Mississippi was one of the scariest states in the nation for blacks at the time. It was not a "Yes We Can" state. It was the second state to secede from the Union, a state known for its lynchings. It was a state where 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered and thrown into the Tallahatchie River, a state where three civil rights workers were killed as they embarked on a voter registration drive a year after the March on Washington.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

On Thursday, the Mississippi delegation took its seats in the back, near the end zone, right behind Utah, and in front of the CNN booth.

Mississippi had changed. "You know that old saying? The hands that picked cotton can now pick a president," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

Mississippi. A state of a thousand black elected officials, a state that Obama overwhelmingly carried in the primary. The Democratic National Convention wouldn't seat Emma Sanders in 1964, but she is seated now. She squints her eyes, and they sparkle. In 1964, she was with Fannie Lou Hamer when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party came by bus to the convention in Atlantic City with an alternate delegation. They had come to challenge the legitimacy of the official whites-only Democratic state delegation.

"We went to the floor and to the Mississippi delegation and the whites walked out," Sanders recalled. This day, she said, is a reminder of all the sacrifice. "We know that our effort was not in vain," Sanders said. "Even though we had to take chances down in Mississippi because people were being killed, somebody had to do it. Even though we took chances, it was worth it."

Lisa Ross wasn't there with Hamer, who was once beaten so viciously in jail that she ended up permanently disabled.

But Ross was with Barack Obama early on. "I stayed away from politics, didn't believe in politics," said Ross, a 45-year-old attorney and delegate. "I just hope that Fannie Lou Hamer is looking down and can see what she's responsible for producing. Today, you can be what you want to be."

The wait for Obama took hours and hours and hours, but when he finally arrived, nearly all of Mississippi's delegates hopped to their feet, joined by the thunder of 84,000, who cheered and flapped signs and waved flags.

Kelly Jacobs, wearing a red-white-and-blue Ole Miss Rebels dress, was in the aisle in long white gloves doing "the bump." Mississippi was now the state of imagination.

The state's Democratic Party chairman, Jamie Franks, is 35 and white, and "from a different generation," he said. "We don't have the problems of being raised in a segregated society. We're trying to work together the best way we can in Mississippi, because we realize we're all in this together."

Sanders moves gingerly now. It's not 1964. Here at Invesco Field, she was eating popcorn and holding three American flags in her lap. But when Obama said, "With profound gratitude and great humility, I accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States," she lifted out of her chair, a wide grin on her face, and started waving those flags.

"Now is the time," Obama urged from the podium again and again, borrowing the phrase King had repeated that day in a crescendo of urgency.

The night came to an end with fireworks shooting out of the columned backdrop of the podium, and confetti showering the stage.

It was time to return home, and work for a dream.

"Waving flags and dancing is okay, to some extent," said Sanders. "But the most important thing is being engaged enough to go back home and work for the victory. There is a lot of work to be done."

Emma Sanders should know.

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