Barack Obama's Election Brings Us Into Dawn's Early Light

A moment hundreds of years in the making, brought about by millions of engaged citizens.

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It was 11:30 p.m. the Friday before the presidential elections. Nikita Dawson had persevered in line for hours, vacillating between light banter with other waiting voters and serious talk about why they had to hang in there until they reached the voting machine.

Finally, Nikita marched up to a voting booth at that Clayton County, Ga., precinct to participate in one of democracy's most sacred acts. She would be the last early voter in Georgia to cast her ballot in the presidential race.

No drumrolls ushered Dawson to the voting booth. But as I glanced at the flag hanging in that polling place, I could almost hear "The Star-Spangled Banner." The perilous fight our nation has endured crystallized with images of valiant patriots jailed, beaten, even lynched in their attempts to cast a ballot.

In the long march to this day, I reflect on the role of the unsung heroes captured in sepia tones in history books.

During an election season punctuated with historic firsts, millions of voters around the country braved lines that stretched for hours. In Virginia, where we challenged the antiquated election system and pushed for extended voting hours and paper ballots, even the judge denying our motion confessed that he had waited in line for over two hours to cast an absentee ballot.

In Craven, N.C., there was a failed blatant attempt at voter intimidation when a casket with a likeness of Barack Obama was placed inside a polling place.

We also confronted scores of other voter suppression tactics, including misinformation about the date of the election and polling locations and claims that people could vote by phone, that students voting in their college towns could lose financial aid, or voters with unpaid child support or parking tickets could be subject to arrest.

Thankfully, such despicable measures could not stem the righteous tide of change. And here we are at this astoundingly triumphant moment with the election of Obama, America's first African-American president.

A moment 232 years in the making—from the end of chattel slavery to today—we are witness to the most inclusive election enjoyed by the largest, best-informed, motivated electorate in our nation's history.

Consider that some African-American precincts saw the number of registered voters swell to 95 percent of those eligible. In some locations, more than 90 percent of those registered actually voted, many for the first time and others for the first time in years. They turned out because it finally mattered.

These stunning statistics represent engagement in the political process on a colossal scale. It is proof through the night that democracy is here.

It is fitting to remember race riots in Springfield, Ill., in 1908 that killed scores of black people and drove thousands more from the city. The atrocity moved labor activist William English Walling to take up the cause of the victims, penning an article that demanded: What large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid? The birth of the NAACP the following year was the response.

It is equally fitting that the man who has desegregated the highest office in the land and transformed the reality for millions of black and brown children by affirming that color need not be a barrier to high pinnacles launched his candidacy for president of the United States in Springfield.

As we bask in the glow of Obama's stunning victory, the battles are still many. Racial and gender-based discrimination continue to warp our housing, employment, and credit markets. Nearly 50 million Americans are without health insurance. Foreclosures spiral upward. Racial profiling persists. No Child Left Behind has abandoned hundreds of thousands of children in underfunded schools. Wars rage on two fronts.

Still, we have proof through the night that an engaged, inspired nation can come together across racial, cultural, and generational boundaries to bring about change.

Real change can happen as we harness the energy that enables us to achieve the extraordinary, even as we fight for simple justice and basic opportunities. These things can propel us forward as we step out into the dawn's early light.