Presidential race is making history, obliterating barriers

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By Marc H. Morial , President and CEO National Urban League | July 1, 2008

As president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, I am encouraged that so many people of both sexes and all colors, especially the young, have decided to obliterate the two most persistent barriers to equal opportunity in America – gender and race discrimination. For the first time in our nation’s history, a woman, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a leading candidate for her party’s nomination. And, for the first time in our history, an African-American, {{more}} Sen. Barack Obama, has clinched that Democratic Party presidential nomination. Our country’s support of their candidacies is one of the most encouraging things about today’s race for president of the United States. Unfortunately, I have heard a number of young people say that this historical moment isn’t such a big deal. But for those of you, who like me, grew up during the height of the women’s rights and the civil rights struggles of the ’60s and ’70s, this is a seminal moment. This is modern-day history. As I reflect upon this historic occasion, I also reflect upon the sacrifices of pioneering women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, whose 70-year fight for a woman’s right to vote did not bear fruit until 1919, with the passage of the 19th Amendment. As I hear the media refer to Obama as a presumptive presidential nominee, I also hear the voice of New Jersey Rep. Mary Norton, who in 1925 became the first Democratic woman elected to the Congress and the first woman to chair a major committee. Norton served 13 consecutive terms and once replied to a condescending male colleague, “I’m no lady, I’m a member of Congress.” As I recall the life of a tiny Brooklyn-born firebrand by the name of Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, I also recall that in 1972 she became the first African-American candidate for president of the United States. I vividly remember 1989, when Doug Wilder became the first African-American governor of Virginia and I pay homage to 1967 when Carl Stokes and Richard Hatcher became the first black mayors of major cities in America. Today, I wonder what life must have been like for Oscar DePriest of Chicago, who in 1928 became the first modern era African-American member of Congress. Today, I wonder what life must be like for the Obama family who a few days ago became the first African-American family to presumably represent the Democratic Party in the race for president of the United States of America. As I watch this chapter of modern day history unfold, I can’t help but remind our youth that today’s achievements are the direct results of yesterday’s sacrifices. Sacrifices that Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Party made in 1964 during a protest at the Democratic National Convention where they challenged the party to enforce voting rights for African-Americans in the South. Hamer’s and the party’s efforts, coupled with the bloody sacrifice of peaceful marchers across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, helped secure the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed the most onerous barriers to black civic participation in this country. That was history. Barack Obama is modern-day history; the history that our children and all young people must understand is the result of years of commitment to equal rights and civil rights for Americans, regardless of gender or race. The first African-American, presumptive presidential nominee in the United States stands on the shoulders of thousands of known and unknown giants of the struggle. To honor our history and his contributions to the continual creation of modern day history, we must respect our past, savor the present and realize that there is always more work to be done. To that end, the National Urban League has invited Sens. John McCain and Obama to join us Aug. 1 in Orlando, Fla., to discuss their views on a presidential urban agenda. We need to ensure that our next commander in chief fully understands the need to incorporate a strategy that improves the economic plight of African-Americans into his presidential plans. As we prepare for this year’s election, I implore you to bear in mind, that even amid this historical happening of the first-ever, African-American, presidential nominee, it is the fate of our nation and the fate of our people that are truly at stake. Marc H. Morial is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League. Visit