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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

This day has been coming, with an irresistible historical logic, since some long-forgotten bondsman first noticed the contradiction between his or her own condition and the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence. Since then, it has been our task to perfect our nation's democracy by holding up a mirror to America and contrasting what the country promised to what it delivered.

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That, in part, was what Obama was alluding to last night when he asserted that, "beyond all the petty bickering and point-scoring in Washington, Americans are a decent, generous, compassionate people, united by common challenges and common hopes. And every so often, there are moments which call on that fundamental goodness to make this country great again.'

It is not a racial appeal, but it is rooted in the knowledge that blacks, whether they knew it or not, have been leading whites, who certainly never realized they were being led, in the direction of a more perfect union since long before the nation was founded. White women (including those who helped to propel Clinton's own precedent-setting campaign), other racial minorities, gays—every group that threw off discrimination and second-class citizenship has followed the pathway to freedom blazed by our struggle.

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And what a remarkable vessel Obama is for the dreams we've poured into him. There is no need to dwell on his gifts as an orator, who sometimes seems to be channeling both JFK and MLK. His shrewdness is equally impressive. He, with his strategist David Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe, assembled a campaign apparatus powerful enough to defeat the former presumptive standard bearer, Clinton, one of the most tenacious and talented candidates in history. Through mastery of the Internet, he has raised spectacular amounts of money largely from small contributors. He out-organized Clinton in caucus states and built up enough of a lead in delegates to outlast her victories in several states at the close of the primary season. He taps into a hunger for change that has aroused the political fervor of the young.

Running an effective campaign is not a complete test of whether a candidate would be a good president, but it reveals a great deal about the aspirants' leadership and organizational abilities, and the way they respond to pressure and unpredictable events.

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So far, Obama has passed every test with extraordinary aplomb. The challenge that remains is, on a way, more for the rest of us than it is for him. Is America ready to entrust its future to a president who is not only black but can dance like one? Or do we have to wait for the day when pigs actually take to the sky and fish can actually whistle?

Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.

is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.