Obama Wins, Pigs Fly

This is a day for reflection and wallowing in history, not mundane political prognostication.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Lawd, have mercy!

They said pigs would fly, fish would whistle and lost souls would be shivering in hell before a major political party anointed a presidential standard bearer who is not only black but actually dances like one.

Well, those wonders may not have occurred, but I’ve been sweeping up shards from the glass ceiling that Barack Obama broke through last night. As the Illinois senator proclaimed to a huge throng of supporters in St. Paul, Minn., “Tonight, we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another—a journey that will bring a new and better day to America. Because of you, tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee.”

Can I get a hallelujah? Can I get an amen? Can I get a splash of cold water thrown in my face?

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s put Obama’s triumph into perspective. For one thing, he must still reach an accommodation with Hillary Clinton, who may be trying to pressure him into choosing her as his running mate. Beyond that, he faces a tough battle against a formidable Republican foe in John McCain.

But this is a day for reflection and wallowing in history, not mundane political prognostication. And, if we look back far enough, we can see that this day has been coming. For all its glass-ceiling-busting, stereotype-shattering, expectation-exceeding glory, Obama’s nomination is the culmination of a series of black political breakthroughs that have occurred with almost metronomic regularity every 20 years since the 1960s. Without those earlier building blocks, Obama’s astonishing achievement would be as unimaginable as those proverbial flying pigs.

Start with what I call conception: the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which made it possible for massive numbers of African Americans, especially in the South, to become full citizens. The result was a political revolution as thousands of blacks won elected offices everywhere from the backwaters in Alabama and Mississippi to the city halls in almost every big city in the nation and the halls of Congress.

Those pioneering forays were followed a generation later by what might be called the quickening: Jesse Jackson’s two runs for the presidency in 1984 and 1988. Jackson’s campaigns awakened an urgent, new sense of political possibility among African Americans by registering hordes of new voters, encouraging a new generation of black candidates and concretizing blacks’ demand for a share of the leadership of the Democratic Party, which had often seemed to take their unwavering support for granted. The system of proportional delegates that Obama so skillfully exploited this year was shaped by Jackson’s demands.

Now, after a 40-year-gestation period, we’re on the brink of delivery. If Obama goes on to win the White House, America will have come a step closer to what an earlier politician from Illinois described as a “new birth of freedom,” as a man who claims kinship with the descendents of both slaves and slave owners becomes the leader of all the people.