Reflections on a Historic First

Hugh B. Price
Hugh B. Price Former President - National Urban League

August 29, 2008

As the clock neared 11 p.m. on the night of July 20, 1969, my wife and I roused our four-year-old daughter out of bed to join us around the electronic hearth, as televisions were quaintly called in those days, to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong become the first human being to set foot on the Moon. For a viewer like me who grew up in the 1940s, witnessing this triumph of American ingenuity, technology and sheer political will bordered on surreal.

As a child, I relished my weekly doses of the futuristic Flash Gordon movie serials where the heroic character played by Buster Crabbe hurtled into outer space aboard rocket ships to planets like Mongo where he did battle against fearsome adversaries like Emperor Ming the Merciless. Yet the prospect that man would someday explore planets in outer space struck me as utterly fanciful. “No way,” I recall muttering, even as I rooted for Flash to prevail.

To invoke a memorable quip by the philosopher Yogi Berra, it felt like deja-vu all over again this week as I watched the Democratic Party nominate Senator Barack Obama, an African American, as its candidate for president. Although flashier and noisier than the Apollo 11 landing, Senator Obama’s riveting acceptance speech and the accompanying spectacle at Invesco Field Thursday night evoked the same sense of awe and utter disbelief even as we viewed the event on our twenty-first-century electronic hearth, a big-screen high definition TV.

During my formative years, schoolteachers and political leaders routinely sought to inspire youngsters with the message that someday we could grow up to become president of the United States. I heard this initially in the segregated public schools for black students that I attended prior to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing school discrimination, and in integrated schools thereafter. “Not in my lifetime,” I vividly remember thinking at the time.

Despite the widespread skepticism that the ultimate glass ceiling in American society would be shattered in any living person’s lifetime, civil rights groups and their allies bravely soldiered on in a resolute crusade to vanquish all vestiges of legally-sanctioned segregation, ensure the vote for all Americans, and expand opportunity in higher education and employment. The history books tell the stories of the heroes of this epic struggle for equality, opportunity and justice—from Martin Luther to Lyndon Johnson, as well as the brave everyday warriors depicted in the award-winning PBS series, “Eyes on the Prize.”

Explanations for the astonishing and swift ascendancy of Barack Obama abound. His diagnosis that vast swaths of voters are totally fed up with the crippling dysfunction in American politics has obviously struck a chord. His youthful zest and his message have energized Gen Xers and younger constituents in unprecedented numbers thus far. While the jury remains out on whether they will vote in November, the historic crowd of 85,000 at the closing proceedings Thursday night suggests that younger people may stay engaged to the finish this time. The fund-raising and community organizing machine that he and his team created has set new high water marks in efficiency and effectiveness.

Then there’s a final point that I noted in an op-ed last June. Support it or not, there’s no doubt that affirmative action greatly accelerated integration on college campuses and in the workplace, thus fueling the expansion of the black middle class and increasing the harmonious exposure of blacks and whites to one another. As Jonathan Kaufman acknowledged in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, “the growth of the middle class and integration of the workplace didn’t only reshape the black community, it transformed the attitudes of many whites as well.” Two generations of Americans have grown up studying together and working together, many of whom are now less inclined to judge political leaders, co-workers and friends based on race, gender or sexual orientation. Barack Obama clearly is the beneficiary of this spirit of open-mindedness.

Notwithstanding the acclamation of Barack Obama and even if he becomes president, the inequities and injustices that continue to afflict black folk will not evaporate. When it comes to race relations, America remains imperfect although ours is unquestionably a more perfect union than any other on earth. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, Senator Obama’s triumph is one mammoth step for African Americans and America alike.

On the eve of January 1, 2000, it was commonplace to herald the dawn the new era of harmony, opportunity and inclusion in this, the most diverse nation on earth. The terrorists attack on 9/11 put the euphoria on hold. Albeit eight years late, the New Millennium finally arrived this week.