The competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is fierce: rallies, ads, speeches, phone calls, get-out-the-vote operations. Four states hang in the balance today -- Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont -- and perhaps the Democratic presidential nomination itself. One of these -- an African-American man or a woman -- will lead the Democratic Party into the election this fall.
It was only 43 years ago -- March 7, 1965 -- that the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., took place. The peaceful demonstrators were marching for that most basic right -- the right to vote. They were met by a sheriff's posse armed with dogs, fire hoses and clubs. The horror of that day appalled a nation and helped move the Voting Rights Act through Congress. The civil rights movement helped to galvanize the women's movement. The Vietnam War -- and the protests against it -- helped young people get the vote. Surely if they were old enough to serve, they were old enough to vote on those who would send them to war.
Now only four decades later, America is transformed. An African American and a woman compete for the presidency. Women turn out in large numbers -- more than 55 percent of the primary voters. Young people -- the new "millennium generation" -- flood to the polls. African-American participation is up; Latino participation is up. The Democratic Party is alive, attracting independent voters, mobilizing activists and volunteers, raising small contributions in record amounts.
The Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954, but we always knew it would take a long time for the culture to catch up to the law. Now, students at the University of Arkansas root for their team. It doesn't matter what the skin color of the players are. Workplaces are more integrated. Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and others transcend racial divides. On many campuses, we see the rainbow. We've come a long way.
No doubt we still have a long way to go. Our school system is more segregated by race now than it was in the 1960s. Our senselessly discriminatory criminal justice system condemns too many nonviolent people to years in jail. African-Americans and Latinos are still often the last hired, the first fired and the most actively targeted by predatory lenders in the housing debacle.
Yet things have changed, dramatically for the better. White men and women find themselves supporting Obama for president. Women find themselves excited by Clinton's historic candidacy. Young people are roused and intent on remaking the world. They surely are the most diverse generation, and the most comfortable with that diversity.
Barack Obama's candidacy is not the cause of that transformation, but it is an expression of it, and a conduit of it. His most powerful argument to Americans is that he can bring us together, across bitter partisan divides, across the arguments of the past, to take our government back and make it work for common purpose. It is a powerful argument, powerfully made. And that millions would find it compelling that an African-American leader could bring us together is clearly a measure of how far we have come.
The Rev. Martin Luther King's dream is not yet realized. He knew the hardest challenge was economic justice -- challenging the nation to lift the poor, to empower working people, to create equal opportunity and a decent society. Were he here, he would be raising the bar, challenging us to do better. But he would also be very proud; 43 years later, it is clear, the movement he led has helped give birth to a new and better America.
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