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My Soul Looks Back and Wonders

Today's post is from Sherrilyn Ifill, author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. She is also a civil rights lawyer and a regular speaker on race, public policy, and law. She blogs regularly at BlackProf.com, where a version of this post originally appeared. 

Ifill Sometimes, you just can't be cynical. Sometimes – even though you know that we still have a long way to go, that the work of achieving a racially just society is far from over, even though you don't subscribe to the messianic fervor that sometimes surrounds talk of about this presidential campaign – sometimes you just have to stop for a moment, and acknowledge the extraordinariness of this moment in American history.

Sometimes, as the old spiritual goes, "my soul looks back and wonders, how I got over." And so I'm taking a moment to reflect on an event that I wished my father had lived to see. I've watched conventions since 1968. I consider myself politically savvy, intellectually gifted, skeptical and pragmatic. But when Michelle Obama and her daughters were standing up on that stage with fresh perms, looking like my sister and her daughters, and when Barack Obama was nominated to be the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party by acclamation Wednesday night, I got a little emotional.

Unlike so many others, I'm not thinking so much about 1963 and King's "I Have a Dream" speech today. Instead, today I'm thinking about 1964. Forty-four years ago, the Democratic Party refused to seat that great voting rights activist, leader and former sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer on the floor of the convention.

Leading the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer and her colleagues arrived in Atlantic City demanding that the Party seat them. The MFDP had abided by all rules, had done everything by the book. Most importantly, they'd complied with the U.S. Constitution and the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, by not excluding anyone from voting and party participation based on race. The MFDP therefore, was the legitimate representative of the state of Mississippi at the convention, not the Sen. James Eastland-led segregationist delegation. You know the rest of the story. The Democratic Party, led by President Lyndon Johnson, his running mate, Hubert Humphrey and Humphrey's aide Walter Mondale tried to hatch a compromise. The MDFP would be offered two symbolic seats on the floor. Hamer uttered the famous retort, "We don't want no two seats, when all of us is tired." Her impassioned televised address to the Credential Committee, in which she told about being beaten by sheriffs in Sunflower County, Mississippi simply for trying to register to vote, was interrupted by a hastily and deliberately staged press conference by Lyndon Johnson. In that speech, she recounted the violence that was visited on her and other poor blacks for seeking to exercise rights they held under the Constitution, and asked the existential question about this country, "Is this America?" I encourage you to listen to Mrs. Hamer's testimony today. For those who want to know more about the life of Mrs. Hamer, I recommend Kay Mills' biography, This Little Light of Mine.

The refusal to challenge the racist policies of its southern delegations was no new posture for the Party. It had been the Democratic Party that had maintained what it regarded as its right to hold "whites only" primaries in the South in the 1940s. The Party insisted that is was a private club, and could choose whatever standards it wished for membership. It took Thurgood Marshall to challenge the practice and the Supreme Court to outlaw it in Nixon v. Herndon and Smith v. Allwright, before the white primary was deemed illegal. Then, the Party's operatives in the South just switched to even more nefarious and violent means to ensure the disenfranchisement of black voters. In 1948, segregationist Gov. Strom Thurmond (later U.S. Senator from Alabama), led the Dixiecrats out of the Party. But by 1964, Party leaders still tacitly and sometimes actively gave aid and comfort to the racist practices of the Party's southern delegations.

Since the MFDP's devastating, failed bid to be seated in Atlantic City, the road has not been easy for blacks seeking full voting and political power within the Democratic Party. Rep. Shirley Chisolm's (D-NY) historic run for President put black women front and center in the demand for leadership recognition in the Party. Jesse Jackson's groundbreaking presidential candidacies in 1984 and 1988, involved massive voter registration efforts that helped transform the position of blacks in the party. His keynote speeches electrified America. He spoke eloquently and passionately for those average hard-working people who "take the early bus." But all too often the interests of blacks in forming the platform and key high-profile issues for the Party's attention have been marginalized. The Party's not all the way there yet.

Nevertheless, in 2008 Barack Obama is the Democratic Party's nominee for president of the United States. He's young, he's cute, he's smart as hell, he's the son of an immigrant. And he was unafraid to take on one of the most influential and well-funded candidates in Party history. He schooled the nation on race in a pass/fail seminar, taught from the steps of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. His wife is a straight up sister. Smart, clear, focused and undaunted by efforts to put her in a box. His children are precocious.

I don't know about you, but, I gotta pause and reflect. Tomorrow, I'll be cynical again. But today, just for a moment, I want to savor the unfamiliar feeling that although the steps may still be too small, even though this is not the end of the work (but in many ways only the beginning) it feels like we might be moving forward.

You might also want to read Sherrilyn Ifill's Beacon Broadside post on the continued relevance of the nooses and lynching.