Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was about to enter his Capitol Hill office on Wednesday afternoon when a tourist from Miami rushed up to him.
“I was watching Barack last night, and I just kept thinking, ‘What would Dr. King think?’” the tourist, Larry Ellery, told Lewis expectantly.
As the only living person to have spoken at the lectern the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, Lewis was perhaps the best person to answer a question that occupied the minds of many Americans.
Lewis touched Ellery’s arm and paused.
“He would have been very, very pleased,” Lewis said. “He probably would have said, ‘Hallelujah!’”
On Capitol Hill, as across the country Wednesday, African-Americans reflected on Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s historic rise as the first black presidential nominee to lead a major political party. They noted that only a few decades ago, African-Americans were fighting across large swaths of the South for basic human rights, hardly pondering the possibility that one of them might soon lead the country.
Many black lawmakers said they were elated at Obama’s victory.
Many said they never thought such a day would come.
“If someone had told me this would be happening now, I would have told them they were crazy, out of their mind, they didn’t know what they were talking about,” said Lewis, who was president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when he stood with King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. “I just wish the others were around to see this day. ... To the people who were beaten, put in jail, were asked questions they could never answer to register to vote, it’s amazing.”
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who grew up in segregated South Carolina and rose to the majority whip position last year, said he was so overcome with emotion Tuesday night that he left a victory party and had to watch Obama’s speech alone.
“I thought this day would come, but I didn’t think I’d live to see it,” Clyburn said. “I got home, and I was so emotional I couldn’t feel myself. I was numb.”
He poured himself a Jack Daniels and Diet Coke and watched Obama speak.
Clyburn said he was disappointed that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) didn’t concede but then added: “Nobody can dampen this for me.”
Obama will formally accept the Democratic nomination on Aug. 28, exactly 45 years to the day after King’s speech and 55 years to the day after 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi in a brutal act of violence that spurred the modern civil rights movement.
Throughout the day Wednesday, African-Americans offered up historical yardsticks to measure what is happening now: 40 years since King’s assassination; 43 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act; 60 years since the late Sen. Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party over the issue of race, which began the Democrats’ transformation from the party of Jim Crow to the party of Barack Obama.
At least five African-Americans before Obama have mounted serious campaigns for president. The first was then-Rep. Shirley Chisholm in 1972. The most successful was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who won 30 percent of the delegate votes at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. The Rev. Al Sharpton made a notable run in 2004, as did former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun. Republican Alan Keyes campaigned in 1996 and 2000.
But only Obama, because of either ability or timing, has succeeded in clinching a major party nomination.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), son of the one-time presidential contender, said Obama’s victory overwhelmed him.
“I cried all night. I’m going to be crying for the next four years,” he said. “What Barack Obama has accomplished is the single most extraordinay event that has occurred in the 232 years of the nation’s political history. ... The event itself is so extraordinary that another chapter could be added to the Bible to chronicle its significance.”
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) couldn’t stop laughing Wednesday morning, conceding that he was giddy over Obama’s victory.
“It’s a good day in America,” he proclaimed.
Clay recalled turning to his father at the breakfast table several months ago and asking whether the elder Clay, himself a former congressman, had ever thought he would see the day when an African-American received the nomination of a major political party.
“He just straight-out said no,” Clay said, surmising that the same conversation must now be playing out at breakfast tables across the country.
Despite Obama’s singular position in American political history, his backers said his race would not be a focus in his campaign. He will stick to economic matters, foreign policy and other topics with broad appeal. Obama rarely describes himself as an African-American candidate. He will not start now, backers said.
“It should be downplayed in the campaign. ... We’ll have to leave that to the historians to consider, because we have an election to win,” said Jackson. “I hope the least historical thing about Barack Obama is his being black and the most historical is that he solved our health care problems, ended the war in Iraq and made life better for Americans.”
Martin Kady II contributed to this story.