Now, 47 years later, Barack Obama stands at the precipice of fulfilling Kennedy’s forecast. On Thursday, he’ll become the first minority to win the presidential nomination, achieving what many thought was impossible given our national obsession with race.
To call this a historic moment feels like understatement. Obama’s nomination represents a sea change, a psychological shift in a country that still struggles with the painful and complicated legacy of slavery.
Fifty-five years ago, whites and blacks learned in separate schools, ate at separate lunch counters and sat in different parts of the bus. Forty-one years ago, Massachusetts elected the first black man to the Senate. Just 18 years ago, Virginia welcomed the first black governor.
And on Thursday, a black man will step up to the podium and accept the nomination of a party that only 44 years ago debated whether to seat black delegates from Mississippi at the 1964 convention.
The timing is particularly acute: Obama’s acceptance speech falls on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address.
Thursday’s singular, symbolic moment both thrills and worries African-American leaders, many of whom never expected to see a black president in their lifetime. Obama’s success exposes the slow shift away from the political leadership of civil rights heroes to those who have come of age in a not yet post-racial, but decidedly mixed-racial, world.
Obama is the crown prince of a new generation of elected black leaders who never drank from a segregated water fountain. They attended the best universities, excelled professionally and came of age with awareness of the world’s diversity. These leaders are part of the civil rights advocacy community but are not owned by it. In public office, they strive to use their identity to build diverse coalitions that stretch across both racial and ideological lines.
Politico talked to dozens of black leaders from across the country, asking them to assess the impact of the Obama nomination and what it says about the state of race in America today.
The panel had as many opinions as Politico had questions. But almost everyone could agree on at least one word, an expression they all believed King would have used to describe Obama’s nomination: “Hallelujah.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)
“A few days ago, I was speaking to a group, and one young lady asked me, ‘What do you think Dr. King would say about Barack Obama’s nomination?’ I said, ‘Young lady, I don’t know, but I have a feeling he would look down and say, ‘Hallelujah.’”
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.)
“I think my most emotional moment came the night of South Dakota and Montana. ... I was thinking about all those times I was telling people, ‘Be what you want to be when you grow up’ and, hell, I didn’t believe it. ... It’s a big moment and, with these sorts of things, you usually don’t expect to see the day.”
The Rev. Floyd Flake, pastor of Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York, who served in Congress from 1986 to 1997
“I don’t think it will draw out latent racism because of the characteristics that define Barack Obama. He is not a traditional black out of the civil rights movement. He is a combo of African-American and white. I think America is at a place today where it is ready to move knowing that, with its population balance shifting, it is no longer about dominance by any particular one race.”
Debra Lee, CEO of BET Holdings Inc.
“I think [after Iowa], for the first time, a lot of black people said, ‘ow this could happen. ... The black community for the first time has a choice.’”
Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker
“The reality is, Obama’s not alone. There’s a wave of African-American leaders who just excite. I see in my own city people in their 20s who are just incredible. Just like the foray of blacks into baseball. Yeah, there was a Jackie Robinson, but after him there were dozens of players who changed the game. There are glass ceilings that will be shattered in statehouses and party leadership positions. Obama’s been a game changer.”
Richmond, Va., Mayor Douglas Wilder, governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1994
“I thought [in 1984 when Jesse Jackson ran for president] that in order for a [African-American] person to become the president of the United States that person would first have to become vice president. I don’t think that now. ...
“What this does for so many people of so many people of different colors and strides and stripe and genders is that if Barack Obama can do it, anybody in this country can do it.”
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
“I think that, while it doesn’t mean we’ve gotten to heaven, ... we are on our way as the old song goes. We are on the highway to a racial justice or at least towards eliminating race as a factor for putting people in political office in high places. ...
“It’s been a spiritual experience for me personally, and I think it’s a spiritual movement that has taken the whole country.”
Robert Johnson, founder of BET and first African-American billionaire
“Selecting Sen. Obama as president of the United States would exceed in its import and its impact what Abraham Lincoln did in 1863 when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. African-Americans to a man, woman and child feel that way.”
Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College, a historically black college for women founded in 1881
“I was born in 1954, and in 1954 we would not be having this conversation. So the fact that we have come to a place in our society where there are enough people willing to endorse, through their votes, financial support and political capital, a black male candidate is very significant in terms of how society has evolved.”
Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP
“I think this would be something that [civil rights leaders such as King] would have hoped for, but I don’t believe they would have imagined it happening now, so quickly, so soon.”
Van Jones, civil rights and environmental advocate
“I don’t think anyone looks at Barack Obama and thinks that this guy is speaking for black Americans. There’s a danger that white people will say that the fact that Barack Obama is president means any black person can be president, without any further reform of the system. That’s a big fear: that his success will be used to reduced sympathies for those who did not succeed.”
Harvey Gantt, first black mayor of Charlotte, N.C., from 1983 to 1987
“As we mature in the political process, we are developing a whole cadre of a new type of politician who wants to appeal more broadly to an entire society. They’ve got to appeal across the board. That’s just a sign to me of the maturing of the African-American politician in this country.”
J.C. Watts, former Oklahoma Republican congressman from 1995 to 2003
“In spite of the fact that I might disagree ideological or politically, I think it’s helpful for my daughter. My 8-year-old daughter asked me during my second term, when we were getting sworn in, she asked me, ‘Daddy, do you have women congressmen?’ So, I think there is a psychological benefit. It is good to see an African-American nominee for major political party. Now it’s not going to shock usas much. No more than to see the female reporter or black quarterback or black Republican or the Hispanic head coach.”
Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League and mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002
“Barack Obama is like the first African-Americans who ran for mayors of major American cities. He’s an extraordinary candidate. ...
“His candidacy is a reflection of — it’s a fruit of the civil rights movement. But the civil rights movement doesn’t ‘own’ him. We may ‘co-own’ him; we are maybe shareholders in his success.”
Roger Wilkins, civil rights activist and assistant attorney general for President Lyndon B. Johnson
“I’m 76 years old, and I have participated in one aspect of the struggle or another since I was a teenager in high school. After I grew up, I understood that this wasn’t an effort that you accomplished in one lifetime or one great magic movement, as we held in the 1950s and 1960s. It was long-range project. You know that you have to keep pushing and you know that you have to keep struggling. And you don’t know exactly how it will come out, but you believe the struggle is worth it because you know there is more decency in the country then the status quo has it. ... Well, I never, back in the ‘60s, I never pushed with the idea that sometime in my lifetime a black person would get to be president of the United States. It never occurred to me.”
Jeff Johnson, BET political commentator on the “The Truth With Jeff Johnson”
“Barack Obama has never been a black leader. He is a leader that happens to be black. He has never carried the black agenda. The responsibility for African-Americans will be as, if not more, paramount to address these issues than before his campaign began.”
Tatsha Robertson, deputy editor at Essence magazine
“The country really has evolved, and that’s a wonderful thing. Who would have though four years ago that an African-American man could be the nominee of the Democratic Party. [His nomination] means it can happen and will happen likely in our lifetime.”
Amie Parnes, Helena Andrews, Ben Adler, Richard T. Cullen, Avi Zenilman and David Paul Kuhn contributed to this story.