- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama’s clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday was a historic moment for blacks and one of the most significant events in U.S. history, say many civil rights leaders and scholars.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a leading figure in the U.S. civil rights movement for decades, compared Mr. Obama’s presumptive nomination to such seminal American events as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery and the accomplishments of civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

“This is one of those watermark moments in history,” Mr. Jackson told The Washington Times on Tuesday from Tanzania, where he was attending an African-American relations conference. “This is a young man who has apparently won the nomination that is a product of two continents. This is a huge moment in American and world history.”

Mr. Jackson, a two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination himself, added that Mr. Obama’s success is the culmination of decades of civil rights battles that Mr. Jackson and others have fought.

This shows “tremendous growth and maturity [in] our democracy,” he said.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a political science and African-American studies professor at Princeton University, said she is “stunned” that a black candidate has come so close to capturing the White House in her lifetime.

“Had you asked me 10 years ago … I would’ve told you that I never would’ve expected an African-American nominee of a major party,” she said. “And I would’ve said if we were going to have one that he’d be a Republican, because the only way white voters would vote for a black candidate is if he’s a conservative.”

Ms. Harris-Lacewell said the most remarkable aspect of Mr. Obama’s campaign is his ability to cross racial and cultural lines.

“For as much as there has been this language about the racism that has emerged in this campaign, and the deployment of racial language, the truly stunning part is how truly the Obama coalition is a multiracial coalition,” she said.

In citing the Illinois senator’s broad appeal, Mr. Jackson said Mr. Obama goes beyond black issues to include women’s and workers’ rights in his platform.

“He has affirmed the need to overcome the wounds that divide by reframing our debate away from just black and white, which is kind of a horizontal analysis, to a forward and vertical analysis,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s mantra of “change” - not his race - is what people identify with, said Ron Walters, government professor at the University of Maryland.

Mr. Walters added he doesn’t think race will play a significant role in the quest for the White House over the next five months.

“I am very cautious about imputing significant change in the American political culture simply because they [might] elect a black president,” he said.

Mr. Jackson added that while Mr. Obama has a strong ability to act as a unifying power for the nation, it will be up to his Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, to unite the party.

“The loser in Denver [at the Democratic convention] will help determine the winner in November,” Mr. Jackson said.

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