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Robert S. McElvaine

Robert S. McElvaine

Posted: May 7, 2008 11:21 PM

This is a Truly Historic Moment; Let's Savor It


As a historian, I am painfully aware of how overused the term "historic" is. But what we are witnessing right now and throughout this presidential election year is the very definition of the word.

For all intents and purposes, Barack Obama has won the Democratic presidential nomination.

Consider the stunning symbolism of the following two chronological parallels:

Senator Obama will give his acceptance speech on August 28, the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Assuming he wins in November (which, with 81% of Americans believing the nation has "pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track" and Republican candidate John McCain wanting to keep going in that direction, is very likely), Obama will be inaugurated less than three weeks before Abraham Lincoln's two-hundredth birthday.

The symbolism of the first major party African-American presidential nominee accepting his party's endorsement on the day when King, four-and-a-half decades earlier, had called on the nation to fulfill its long-deferred ideals, and of the first African-American president being inaugurated less than a month before the nation celebrates the bicentennial of the "Great Emancipator" should be enough to bring tears to the eyes of even hardened political cynics.

But the deep historical significance of what is currently happening goes even farther. As we reach the end of the Democratic nomination struggle, more than 16 million Americans have voted for a candidate from a category of Americans who were not allowed to vote for the first thirteen decades of the Republic. More than 16 million others have voted for a candidate from a category of Americans who were only assured to the right to vote four decades ago.

America has always been both an ideal and a reality, and the reality has never matched the ideal. It never will.

In 2008, the 232nd year since Thomas Jefferson proclaimed as America's ideal the radical concept that "all men are created equal" and the 221st since the Founding Fathers set out "to form a more perfect union," we are making significant moves in the direction of treating all men and women equally and forming a less imperfect union.

We will never fully reach the ideal of America, but we are closer today than ever before to fulfilling what progressive intellectual and New Republic founder Herbert Croly referred to in 1909 as "The Promise of American Life." The immense support for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries marks a partial -- but substantial -- acceptance of the greatest ideal envisioned (but certainly not practiced) by the imperfect men who started the American experiment and formed our imperfect union: genuinely equal rights and opportunities for all people.

In the midst of all the problems the nation and world face today, when it often seems like the only sort of news that exists is bad news, we ought to give this genuinely historic moment its due. Let us pause and savor it.

Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters and chair of the history department at Millsaps College. His latest book, Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America has just been published by Crown.