Local Politics

Obama nomination hits historic chord for many

Posted August 28, 2008 5:26 p.m. EDT
Updated August 28, 2008 8:51 p.m. EDT

— When Martin Luther King Jr. moved the nation in August 1963 by describing his dream of racial equality, Ralph Campbell was on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to hear him speak.

"(I wanted) to join the hundreds of thousands of other people that were looking to change the face of communities in the nation and North Carolina," said Campbell, then a rising high school senior in Raleigh.

Forty-five years ago, bathrooms and drinking fountains in North Carolina were still separated by race, and the General Assembly had all white representation.

"In 12 years (in) public schools in Raleigh, even after schools were officially desegregated, I never had a black classmate in a class," said Gary Pearce, a Democratic consultant.

Pearce said integration has transformed and split the state Democratic Party in recent decades. Twenty-eight members of the General Assembly are now African-American, and the House of Representatives elected a black speaker. North Carolina voters have elected a black Supreme Court chief justice.

Campbell became the first black member of the Council of State, the group of statewide elected officials, when he was elected state auditor in 1992.

"It's so exciting to see where we've come from," he said.

That excitement will be heightened Thursday night when Barack Obama accepts his place as the first black presidential nominee of a major political party – on the 45th anniversary of King's iconic speech in Washington.

Campbell and Pearce said King and many others carved the path for Obama, but race remains a political wild card.

"Don't get carried away. We're still not Utopia," Pearce said.

Still, Campbell said Obama represents an emotional journey of racial progress.

"Forty-five years ago, standing there on the mall in Washington, to hear the speeches and to be a part of that dream from Raleigh and to end up (seeing Obama's nomination) in my lifetime," he said. "(It gives me) tears of joy, pride."