- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

On a hot August day in 1963, I sat cross-legged on my parents’ living-room rug in southern Ohio to watch the Rev. Martin Luther King make history. His “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial made history and moved legislation.

Sen. Barack Obama became the first nonwhite to accept a major party’s nomination to be president on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech. Deep in my heart I do believe that somewhere King is smiling.

It was a big deal to watch the live black-and-white TV images of Dr. King making his historic speech. It was King’s dream that everyone would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

At that time, it is important for young folks to know, “white” and “colored” signs were still posted over public restrooms and water fountains across the American South. In the North, we didn’t have the signs, but we often still had the segregation - in housing, schools, amusement parks and, most important, jobs. When black families vacationed like mine by car in the summer, we could not just drive up to any hotel or motel and spend the night. More often than not, we slept in our cars.

“My family didn’t own slaves,” I often have heard white Americans say, as if skin privilege ended with the Civil War. Black Americans of my generation know better and our children can’t afford to be fooled. Yet, we cannot afford to wallow in bitterness, either.

Mr. Obama’s nomination demonstrates how much King’s faith in this nation’s better angels has been rewarded and how much of his dream - “a dream as old as the American dream,” he said - has been achieved.

Presidential campaigns teach us Americans about ourselves. Some of the lessons of this one include:

(1) Racism appears to have fallen out of fashion, if not out of business. Few people will admit they won’t vote for Mr. Obama because of his pigment. Yet polls show at least 12 percent cling to the belief that Mr. Obama is a Muslim, undeterred by overwhelming evidence that he is a Christian and never was a Muslim. Yet, what if he were? Did someone hang a “No Muslims need apply sign” on the White House?

(2) Mr. Obama’s biracial background may attract at least as many voters as it puts off. Still, as much as Americans say they believe “race doesn’t matter,” it is ironic that they still need to hear a black person say it.

(3) The bigger divide that Mr. Obama’s campaign has revealed is a big gap in socioeconomic class. Among whites, Mr. Obama does best among voters who are younger, better educated and more likely to have benefited from the industrial and economic changes of recent years. Sen. John McCain, like Sen. Hillary Clinton, tends to do better among older, working-class whites.

Yet, working-class blacks and whites seem to get along better than ever. Increasingly race seems to be a proxy issue for deeper concerns, such as whether immigration and outsourcing to Asia threaten local jobs. Mr. Obama has talked a lot about the economy but failed so far to detail a strategy that can make the issue his own. “Change you can believe in” is a great slogan. He needs to detail what kind of change he is talking about.

(4) The word “racist” is being stretched so much it is beginning to lose meaning. For example, some people call blacks “racist” for giving about 90 percent of our support to Mr. Obama. Those critics ignore history. Catholics, for example, turned out in numbers almost that high for John F. Kennedy in the 1960s. Various ethnic and religious communities typically show overwhelming support when one of their members has a chance to break barriers on their behalf. Besides, the critics forget how hard Mr. Obama had to work to woo the black vote away from Hillary Clinton. Remember when everybody seemed to wonder whether he was “black enough?” No more.

Nevertheless, Mr. Obama’s successes compel black Americans to catch up with changing times, too. Race men like the Rev. Jesse Jackson complain that Mr. Obama “talks down to black people” by calling for personal responsibility. But his black audiences mostly applaud enthusiastically.

Now a new concern arises in the community of black scholars, activists, bloggers and barbershop pundits: Will Mr. Obama’s historic achievements make it harder to rally support for the parts of Dr. King’s dream that remain undone? Probably so. That’s the price of success.

The good news, whether Mr. Obama wins in November or not, is that so much of white America supports King’s dream, too.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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