When Barack Obama took the stage at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., last week to claim victory in the Democratic presidential primary race, this nation appeared to have turned an important corner.
In becoming the first black presidential candidate of a major political party, the junior senator from Illinois scaled one of America’s highest hurdles. His achievement comes just 43 years after the Voting Rights Act paved the way for blacks – Obama’s most reliable voting bloc – to fully participate in this nation’s electoral process.
For sure, his victory is a signal moment in a nation long plagued by racism and the yawning black-white divide created by 246 years of slavery and the Jim Crow century that followed. Obama won the backing of a large number – though not a majority – of white voters, who embraced his message of change.
“This was the moment, this was the time, when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals,” Obama said in a stirring victory address.
His triumph also must be shared with a long list of people who did not live to see this day.
It is a win for Crispus Attucks, the runaway slave who in 1770 became the first casualty of the American Revolution when he was shot to death by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre.
It’s a long overdue victory for Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts senator who was badly beaten with a cane on the Senate floor in 1856 by a South Carolina congressman after giving a scathing speech against slavery.
It’s a just tribute to the courage of Victoria Woodhull, the nation’s first female presidential candidate, who in 1872 named Frederick Douglass – the black abolitionist and journalist – as her running mate. The Equal Rights Party broke both the gender and race barrier in that campaign, but its slate was soundly defeated at a time when blacks and women were treated with great disdain.
Obama’s nomination also is a victory for William Monroe Trotter, the courageous publisher of the Boston Guardian, who in 1914 was ejected from a White House meeting with Woodrow Wilson after he challenged the president’s decision to create segregated working conditions for federal workers in Washington.
It’s a triumph for Charlotta Bass, the black editor and publisher of the California Eagle newspaper, who tried to knock down a racial barrier and build a bridge of understanding when she ran for vice president on the Progressive Party’s ticket in 1952.
Obama’s victory is a transformative win for millions of blacks and whites who found his call for change more compelling than the racial fears and resentments too many of them have harbored.
Obama’s success is not just a victory for him, it is a major gain for the country – a triumph that holds out the possibility that race will cease to be a defining issue in this nation’s life.
But the outcome of presidential campaigns isn’t decided by primary elections, and the chasm separating blacks and whites won’t be bridged simply because a political party made a black man its standard bearer, though that is a big step in the right direction.
There is still a general election campaign to be waged. That contest will tell us a lot about whether Obama’s nomination is part of a political sea change or a catalyst for reviving long-disguised racial animus.
The real measure of what’s happening in this country won’t be apparent in November’s vote tally but rather in the days between now and then as this historic campaign for the presidency is waged.
DeWayne Wickham is a Maryland-based columnist who wriites for USA TODAY. E-mail: DeWayneWickham@aol.com