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A Moment for the Ages, Many Years in the Making

In his victory speech at Chicago's Grant Park, Barack Obama referenced Lincoln, King and others, urging collaboration, because "the road ahead will be long."
In his victory speech at Chicago's Grant Park, Barack Obama referenced Lincoln, King and others, urging collaboration, because "the road ahead will be long." (By Anthony Jacobs -- Getty Images)

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By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008

"Obama Makes History," said the headline in this newspaper on Wednesday, a statement of the obvious, but no less momentous for that. Everybody knows it's true -- nearly everybody has been saying it since Tuesday night. But what does it mean to make history?

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David Blight, a Yale historian, has a useful definition: People feel history is being made by events that they realize at once will alter their own lives. "What an extraordinary moment of collective memory we are having!" he says on the telephone from New Haven, Conn., comparing it to Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and 9/11.

"This is a special moment, and there aren't a lot of them," says David Nasaw, a historian at the City University of New York. He recounts an e-mail he sent Wednesday to his two grown children: "Whatever happens, enjoy this day, because a moment like this comes once in a lifetime."

History is made in two ways: By dramatic occurrences, often surprises, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and by the slow accretion of small changes over long periods. These are harder to notice while they're happening, but often more significant than the isolated, surprising events. The two are usually interrelated. Says David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Stanford: "The combination of great, inexorable forces on the one hand, and contingency, chance and randomness on the other -- that's what keeps guys like me in business."

That combination made Barack Obama the soon-to-be 44th president of the United States. The "great forces" at work in this case began with the transformation of the status of black people in American life, a painfully slow process that began to gather real force in the prelude to World War II. Jesse Owens's gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, then Joe Louis's first-round knockout of the German Max Schmeling in 1938 were triumphs by black Americans in the face of Nazi propaganda about the superiority of the Aryan race. Both events excited widespread American patriotism centered on black accomplishments.

In June 1941, for the first time since the Civil War era, the federal government took formal action in support of the rights of black people. Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, requiring the defense industries then preparing the country for war to provide equal employment opportunities. Roosevelt was pressed to issue this order by A. Philip Randolph of the sleeping car porters' union, who had threatened a demonstration by "100,000 Negroes" in the streets of Washington. The order and subsequent government support for civil rights eroded the Republican Party's claim to the loyalty of black Americans as "the party of Lincoln," Kennedy says. In its place came the alliance between blacks and Democrats that was so important on Tuesday.

Blacks fought gallantly in World War II, then Harry Truman integrated the armed forces. Black entertainers and athletes made spaces for themselves in areas of American life that had rarely if ever seen dark faces before. In Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Supreme Court embraced racial integration in the public schools. Black Americans launched a civil rights movement that eventually produced laws ending legally enforced segregation and allowing African Americans to vote.

All these made possible the rise of black America over the last four decades. The country now has a large African American middle class populated by an unprecedented number of black professionals. African Americans began to thrive in politics: In the 1960s, there were hundreds of black elected officials in America; today there are about 10,000. In the same brief period, the demographics of the United States were transformed. Seventy-four percent of the voters in 2008 were white, compared with 90 percent just 32 years ago, when Jimmy Carter was elected president.

Another "great force" is apparent to any American with her eyes open. John Morton Blum, 87, speaks of the decline of "race consciousness" in America, which he has watched among his students at Yale since the 1950s. Beginning in the '60s, Blum observes, young adults have been steadily less concerned about race, and today seem all but indifferent to racial differences. "The change has already occurred," Blum says. "It's profoundly important if you think about the history of race in America."

The unexpected "random" event that combined with those great forces to produce the United States' first black president was the emergence of Barack Obama.

Here, the role of chance is striking. One event put Obama in a position to run for president this year, and he had no control over it: his selection to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, one of the best-received political speeches in recent history. Why was Obama chosen? Because Mary Beth Cahill thought it was a good idea.

Cahill managed Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. In a recent conversation, she recounted how numerous Democratic politicians volunteered for the role, all conscious of the career boost that keynoters had gotten in the past. Many, including Obama, sent emissaries to Cahill and her colleagues to make a pitch. A governor, an Iraq veteran, a woman were all considered, but only Obama was a fresh, young face. Moreover, in the spring of 2004 he appeared to be in a tough race for the U.S. Senate (he eventually won easily), and Kerry wanted to help strengthen Senate Democrats if he could.


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