“Rosa Parks sat down. Martin Luther King Jr. marched. Barack Obama ran. And on Tuesday night, Obama’s marathon reached an unprecedented place in American history. Poll returns built to an insurmountable lead for the African-American candidate, one whose face and words have come to define not just an election but a time in history.
A nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal elevated that principle to its highest office. ‘This is a central moment in American history,’ said Michael Dawson, one of the nation’s leading authors and scholars on race and politics.
‘Obama is an important signal to the world about the ability to overcome such a wretched history of conflict and hatred,’ he said, ‘and to build a more democratic society through the sweat and tears of its people.’ On its face, the achievement is plain. An African-American will soon be sworn in as president of a country built partly with the forced labor of black slaves.
The moment takes on an even richer meaning when considered in the context of modern culture and politics — especially if that is defined in terms of the Illinois senator’s own life span. His parents’ generation saw institutionalized racism begin to crumble, as Jim Crow laws were felled one by one. In 1954 the Supreme Court decided that segregated schools violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing all citizens equal protection of the law.
Shortly after that, the court decided that segregation on public buses was illegal, a development stirred by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat in the whites-only section and King’s ensuing bus boycott. Still, when Obama was a child in Hawaii, the marriage of his parents — a white woman and a black man — was illegal in 16 other states.
‘It underscores the real historic break here,’ says Martha Biondi, professor of African-American studies and history at Northwestern University. ‘When he was born, people who looked like him couldn’t even go into the voting booth. Now he is about to go into the White House.’
Today it’s tempting to see Obama’s historic run for the presidency as a closing chapter of the country’s tormented racial history. History warns against it.
‘While it’s a huge symbolic transformation of American politics, it doesn’t mean that racial conflict and disadvantage is going to disappear,’ Dawson said. ‘I think it means it’s declining. But it’s easy to misunderstand the resiliency of racial disadvantage and racial conflict.’
Look no further than the U.S. Senate. When Obama leaves it, it could once again become an all-white club. Biondi hesitates to declare the nation postracial, but she does point to the symbolic power of Obama’s singularity.
‘Having a black man in the White House sends a message that the U.S. is waking up, that we’re embracing diversity, that we’re embracing the world. It sends a message to youth of color that there really is no barrier to what they can achieve.
‘Obama is taking us to another chapter in that story.’ Historians aren’t the only ones mindful of that. At a rally Tuesday in Philadelphia, Jay-Z uttered a line that has been picking up currency among black voters and politicians this year.
‘Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk,’ Jay-Z told the crowd. ‘Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run.’
An anonymous black man on the ‘L’ in Chicago put his own spin on it when he announced to a car full of strangers: ‘Rosa Parks sat down. Martin Luther King marched. Barack Obama ran. And my grandchildren will fly.'”