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"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
These are the words of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States. Obama will soon take up residence in the aptly-named Whitehouse, the presidential mansion built by slave labour. Dr. Martin Luther King once said "history is a path upward, not downward", and Obama's election demonstrates, at least to an extent, that this is true for African-Americans. It is, after all, within living memory that African-Americans were denied even the most basic rights in the United States. Until the wide scale civil rebellion of the 1950s and '60s, known as the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans were second class citizens in their own country. It is perhaps difficult for modern-day students to appreciate what that actually means. Full citizenship meant access to the American Dream and all the economic and social benefits that entailed. For African-Americans, however, the dream was more like a nightmare. U.S society was supposed to be 'separate but equal'. There were, however, two Americas, divided by what W.E.B. DuBois called 'the color line'. African-Americans faced discrimination from kindergarten to the grave, in schoolrooms, in the criminal justice system, in higher education, and in employment practices. In most areas of the South, African-Americans were obliged to use separate facilities to whites. This meant separate drinking fountains, waiting rooms, public parks and toilets. Whites would enter public buildings by the front door, whereas blacks would use the back entrance. In at least one case, blacks and whites used different Bibles when swearing an oath in court. Restaurants and cafes had separate eating areas for blacks and whites, and on most inter-state bus routes, blacks had to sit at the back of the bus. In addition, few blacks in the South were registered to vote, and those who tried to register faced 'literacy tests', intimidation and violence. In short, while American society was separate, it was, however, anything but equal.
The Second World War marked the beginning of the end of the doctrine of white supremacy in the United States. Black men who had fought in the war against Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism, also fought for a 'double victory' against racism at home. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) began the long, slow process of desegregating the public school system. In Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks' calculated act of civil disobedience led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and eventual desegregation of public transport in both the city and in wider Alabama. Other acts of disobedience beginning at a Woolworth’s lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, and then all across the South, led to the desegregation of many businesses. Black and white 'Freedom Riders' faced such horrific violence from locals and police that President Kennedy set in motion policies that would ensure all interstate transport facilities were integrated by 1962. Individual acts of bravery and sacrifice were repeated across the nation: U.S. Airforce veteran James Meredith, with the help of hundreds of U.S. Federal Marshals, faced down a violent mob of racists to become the first African-American to enrol at the University of Mississippi. Meredith would later be shot and wounded at a Civil Rights march and whereas he survived the attack, others would not be so fortunate. NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered by an assassin in front of his wife and children. In Birmingham, Alabama, four little girls were killed when their church was bombed by white racists. Three young civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan as they worked to register black voters in Mississippi during the ‘Freedom Summer’ of 1964. A few years later, Martin Luther King Jr., who many saw as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and a man who espoused a policy of non-violence, was murdered by another lone white gunman. By this point, however, King had lived long enough to see the beginning of the end of state-authorised discrimination. While the stroke of a pen cannot change economic conditions overnight—as evidenced by riots in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, Detroit 1967, and in South Central Los Angeles in 1992—the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did much to level the playing field of equality and opportunity.
This is, therefore, a deeply symbolic triumph for Obama and also for the American people. If there is such a thing as the 'national mood', it is surely much brighter now than it has been for most of the last decade. Furthermore, many non-Americans previously alienated by the policies of the Bush Administration, are looking forward to the new Obama era. However, with such raised expectations comes the possibility—perhaps even the probability—of disappointment. Once the euphoria of victory has passed, Obama will have to face some sobering facts. Only two previous presidents have been elected to lead a country in such dire straits—Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like Lincoln, Obama will be a reluctant war president, as he attempts to extricate U.S. Armed Forces from the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan. And like Roosevelt, Obama faces an economic crisis that will get much worse before it gets better. But great men rise to great challenges. Americans remember Lincoln and Roosevelt as two of their greatest presidents. Will Obama be as fondly remembered? Only time will tell.