CHICAGO | The skinny kid with the funny name will forever be a part of history.
The crowd that gathered Tuesday night to catch a glimpse of Sen. Barack Obama as he reached a triumphant end to his “improbable” journey was massive. His supporters recognized that they were witnessing a major change in the way Americans view race.
Patrick Kennedy hoisted his arms into the air, unfurling a brightly painted canvas sign with a simple message for the people waiting to hear Mr. Obama give his victory speech: “We have overcome.”
Mr. Kennedy, a white, 35-year-old history teacher, had tears streaming down his face when he explained that he believed he was seeing a moment of national unity.
“It’s been a long struggle,” he said, wiping at his wet eyes and apologizing for his emotional response. “No more fire hoses, no more dogs. As a student of history, to know what our country has gone through to get to this moment. A person of color has ascended to the highest position in the world and been judged not on his color but on his creed. On who he is. This is amazing.”
Mr. Kennedy, one of thousands of early arrivals in Chicago’s Grant Park, described himself as a “Hoosier guy in the heart of Indiana.”
“I don’t think race matters anymore,” he said. “We’ve transcended race and we’ve got a job to do now.”
From the first time he took the stage before the country as an Illinois state senator at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Mr. Obama talked about the “politics of hope.” He added a message of “change” once he started running for president.
“I’m not talking about blind optimism here,” Mr. Obama said at the convention four years ago. “I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”
He was lauding the 2004 presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, and vice-presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards, but also began to tell his own story.
He won his Senate race that year facing a weak Republican challenger not from Illinois, and began to build a name for himself nationally.
He laughed off speculation that he would run for president in 2008, saying it was far too early.
But his book “The Audacity of Hope” became a bestseller in 2006 and he began drawing record crowds, attracting younger voters and building an organization that later would lead to the largest grass-roots movement in presidential politics. He helped dozens of Democrats win races that year when the party seized control of Congress.
And people started looking for something different as the presidential race began.
For months, Mr. Obama, 47, avoided talking about the historic nature of his bid to become the nation’s first black president, glossing over the fact that he gave his acceptance address on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He rarely talked about his mixed-race heritage, saying he believed the country had moved beyond racial divisions.