walk to white house

Ron DePasquale

Ron DePasquale

New York - When Barack Obama was born in 1961, the marriage of his black father and white mother would have been illegal in half the US, and blacks across the South were virtually barred from voting.

As Obama stands on the verge of becoming the first black US president today, he represents the pinnacle of a five-decade long struggle that stretches back to segregation. Obama's predecessors range from what he has called the "Moses generation" of civil rights leaders, to big city mayors to national figures like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the two secretaries of state over the last eight years.

As the number of black politicians grew rapidly, a new generation emerged that, like Obama, had gone to Ivy League schools instead of historically black colleges, had no roots in the civil rights movement and offered inclusive messages with mainstream appeal.

Jesse Jackson, a protege of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, was wildly popular among African-Americans and became the first black presidential candidate to win a state primary race in 1984. He later tried to broaden his appeal to white voters and finished a strong second to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis four years later.

Jackson had been inspired to run for president by the 1983 election of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, who swept to victory in a racially divided city in his second mayoral campaign.

Washington's victory also inspired a young Obama, who had just graduated from Columbia University in New York and moved to Chicago.

In his first book, Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote of the excitement that Washington stirred among Chicago's minorities.

"His picture was everywhere: on the walls of shoe repair shops and beauty parlours; still glued to lampposts from the last campaign; even in the windows of the Korean dry cleaners and Arab grocery stores, displayed prominently like some protective totem," he wrote.

Black mayors eventually won in big cities around the US: Andrew Young in Atlanta, David Dinkins in New York City, Willie Brown in San Francisco and Wilson Goode in Philadelphia.

They proved that African-American politicians could aspire to represent more than black congressional districts and paved the way for a black president, said John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

"Black mayors held real power," he said. "That got us all used to a black man wearing a suit, giving speeches, pulling the strings.

"That's what got America used to the idea of a black man or woman running things," McWhorter said.

"When Barack Obama came on the scene, I was asked frequently if I thought he could be elected," black senator Edward Brooke said. "And I'd say I'm the last person to say it couldn't happen. I've already shown that white voters are open to voting for black candidates, so it made sense to me."

Colin Powell, another African-American, rose to prominence in the war against Iraq as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest US military position. Many Americans saw him as the next US president.

After retiring, he wrote a best-selling memoir about his rise from humble roots - born in New York City's rough South Bronx neighbourhood. But he demurred running for president, declaring it was "a calling that I do not yet hear".

Ironically, Jackson was caught on an open microphone in the early days of the 2008 presidential campaign saying that he wanted to "castrate Obama" for speaking down to black Americans.

But in November, many Americans were moved by the sight of Jackson, tears streaming down his face, as he listened to Obama's victory speech on election night. - Sapa-AP