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Even during the darkest hours of his presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois held on to his improbable, unshakable conviction that America was ready to step across the color line. On Tuesday, America leaped. Millions of voters — white and black, Hispanic and Asian, biracial and multiracial — put their faith and the future of their country into the hands of a 47-year-old black man who made history both because of his race and in spite of it.
African-Americans wept and danced in the streets on Tuesday night, declaring that a once-reluctant nation had finally lived up to its democratic promise. Strangers of all colors exulted in small towns and big cities. And white voters marveled at what they had wrought in turning a page on the country’s bitter racial history.
“It brought tears to my eyes to see the lines,” said Bob Haskins, a black maintenance worker at an Atlanta church, where scores of college students voted on Tuesday. “For these young folks, this is a calling. Everything that Martin Luther King talked about is coming true today.”
Tobey Benas, a retired teacher who voted for Obama in Chicago, also savored the moment: “I can’t believe how far we’ve come,” said Benas, who is white. “This goes very deep for me.”
In a country long divided, Obama had a singular appeal: He is biracial and Ivy League educated; a stirring speaker who shoots hoops and quotes the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; a politician who grooves to the rapper Jay-Z and loves the lyricism of the cellist Yo Yo Ma; a man of remarkable control and startling boldness.
He was also something completely new: an African-American presidential candidate without a race-based agenda. And his message of unity and his promise of a new way of thinking seemed to inspire — or least offer some reassurance — to a country staggered by two wars, a convulsing economy and sometimes bewildering global change.
Americans, of course, have not suddenly become colorblind or forgotten old wounds. But millions of white citizens clearly decided Obama was preferable to the alternative, even if some had to swallow hard when they walked into the voting booth.
“In difficult economic times, people find the price of prejudice is just a little bit too high,” said Governor Michael Easley of North Carolina, a white Democrat. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t care what your race is. If you can make things better, we’re for you.’ ”
Easley said he knew big changes were coming when he passed a pickup on the road a few weeks ago. The white driver, who looked like he had been hunting, was wearing camouflage apparel and had a gun rack in his truck. Easley said he was sure he was looking at a McCain supporter — until he saw the Obama stickers plastered on the door.
“I thought to myself, ‘We might be winning now,’ ” Easley said. “We could cross that chasm, we could cross the Rubicon this time.” Confident in the country’s ability to move beyond racial politics, Obama had his finger on the pulse of a nation in transition.
Day by day, year by year, racial tensions have eased as black and white classmates giggle over scribbled notes, co-workers gossip over cups of coffee, predominantly white audiences bond with Oprah and people have grown accustomed to black executives on Wall Street, black movie stars in Hollywood and black cabinet secretaries in the Oval Office.
Still, the fact that Americans would be willing, at last, to elect a black president stunned many scholars, politicians and advocates for civil rights. They remain keenly aware of the nation’s record of denying black aspirations — from the time African slaves were forced to these shores nearly 400 years ago, to the broken promises of Reconstruction, to the bloody resistance to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to the last lynching of a black man in 1981.
“The history of the country is such that you wonder when, if ever, certain things will ever happen,” said Representative James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who is 68. “You sit down and you say, ‘How did the Lord allow me to be a part of all this? Why not my mother and father or their parents? Why me?’ ”
Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar of African-American history, said that the election rivaled the day in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and the day 101 years later when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Then Gates declared, “There’s never been a moment like this in our lifetime, ever.”
For older blacks, Obama’s victory was particularly momentous. They marveled as they compared the scenes of white policemen beating black marchers in the 1960s to those from this year’s campaign rallies where thousands of white people waved American flags and chanted, “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!”
Richard Hatcher, who became one of the nation’s first black mayors when he was elected in 1967 to lead Gary, Indiana, said he believed the election would reshape the perceptions that blacks and whites have of each other.
“That’s the great hope,” Hatcher said. “We do not have to be absolutely obsessed with the issue of race anymore. There’s no reason why the vision of America cannot be real.”
A century or so ago, such optimism was unthinkable. Before the Civil War, only two black people — a justice of the peace and a township clerk — had managed to get elected to public office in the entire country.
The prospects for black politicians were so dim that Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist, when asked what he might do as president, dismissed the question as absurd, saying, “No such contingency has even one chance in 60 million to be realized.”
After black men won the right to vote in 1870, they sent 23 African-Americans to Congress over the next three decades. But by 1901, when the last black lawmaker of that era left Capitol Hill, Southern whites had disenfranchised blacks, using, among other devices, the poll tax, intimidation and violence.
By the time Obama announced his White House bid last year, though, white voters had elected black members of Congress, state legislators, mayors, even governors. This year, 70 percent of white adults surveyed in a New York Times/CBS News poll said the United States was ready to elect a black president.
Still, most of the political establishment — black and white — thought that Obama had no chance. Previous black presidential candidates had never drawn significant white votes. And Obama, only the third black lawmaker ever elected to the Senate, had an unusual biography — a white mother from Kansas, black father from Kenya, a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia — and a relatively thin résumé.
But once the primary season started, it became clear that Obama had a persona and a message that resonated deeply with voters. Variously a soaring orator, a sober policy wonk, an urgent promoter of change and a steady leader, he displayed a gift for finding consensus that let him draw support from people who might disagree with each other.
African-Americans, wary at first of a candidate who had not emerged from the civil rights movement or the black church, soon embraced him. And though he struggled to win over white, working-class voters, many whites were attracted to a candidate who rarely talked about race and focused on their concerns about the war in Iraq, health care and the economy.
His biracial background may have reassured voters who might otherwise have felt uneasy, said Governor James Doyle of Wisconsin, a white Democrat. “He has understood that occasionally white people say things that can be hurtful and can still be wonderful, loving people.”
Yet Obama also expressed pride in his African-American identity. Gates, the Harvard professor, called Obama “the postmodern race man.”
“He can wear it, he can take it off, he can put it back on. It’s just an aspect of his identity,” Gates said. “People don’t see him primarily as black. I think people see him primarily as an agent of change.”
Obama is a student of history, and he turned to it in delivering the speech in March that many believed saved a candidacy threatened by his ties to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., whose 2003 “God damn America” sermon became notorious.
The senator spoke of the legacy of slavery, of black grievance and white resentment, and of the possibility of redemption.
“I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own,” he said then. “But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change.”
“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama added. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress has been made.”
Civil rights leaders cautioned that much work remains to be done. But Lattrell Foster of Chicago, 32, who voted for the first time on Tuesday, was still close to tears as he considered the enormity of the nation’s progress and vowed to tell his children about it. “Just like my grandparents told me what it was like during the civil rights movement,” he said. “I feel like this night is a culmination of that history.”
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