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'I never thought I'd live to see this day'

Obama backers express hope and excitement -- and some caution.

June 05, 2008|Bob Drogin, Erika Hayasaki and Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writers

Until now it has been the stuff of fiction. But on Wednesday, Americans reckoned with the reality: A black man is now a major party's candidate for president.

"I never thought I'd live to see this day," said retired pharmacist Arthur Dees, 80, marveling at Barack Obama's triumph. Dees, an Army veteran, recalled that he attended Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration in 1953, but was not welcome in any downtown Washington hotel or restaurant.

"They were all segregated," he said, as he shopped at a mall in Wheaton, Md., a blue-collar community 12 miles north of the White House. Fighting back tears, he added, "My people have always had doggone names. We were darkies. Then colored. Next they called us Negroes. After that, we were black. Now, we're Afro-Americans. But with Obama, we're going to be just Americans. Won't that be something!"

From a shopping mall in the San Gabriel Valley to a hair salon in Denver and the bustling sidewalks of Lower Manhattan, people of all political, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds expressed excitement, pride, hope, relief and caution as they considered the implications of the 46-year-old Obama's historic achievement as the Democrats' likely presidential nominee.

Under gray skies at the Seattle Ferry Terminal, commuters heading home hurried toward seats on the green and white ferries. They streamed past news racks displaying banner headlines. "Obama: This is our moment," read the Seattle Times.

John Trapp, a 46-year-old white home builder from Poulsbo, Wash., echoed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous line when he said he hoped the country was "beyond race" and would judge Obama "by the content of his character." He was dubious though.

"Some people will vote for him because he is black and some will not vote for him because he is," said Trapp, who is more excited about Obama's age than his race. After all, he said, "he's the first person of my generation" to be a major party nominee.

Chelsea Baker, 18, waited to catch a ferry to Bainbridge Island after leaving her Seattle restaurant hostess job. Like millions of other young adults, she was inspired by Obama to register to vote and attend her first political events.

She's heard racist comments and knows the sentiment is out there. "I'm a little worried," said Baker, who is white. "But you'd like to think we've moved on."

In Atlanta, Sharon McLaurin, 43, a clerk who grew up in Mississippi, stared into the reflecting pool surrounding the Rev. King's crypt and recalled that her parents had to sit in the back of buses, use separate restrooms and drink from different water fountains.

When she has seen Obama on TV, she said, she's been struck by how many faces in the crowds are white. "That tells me they are looking at the issue of change," she said. "They no longer see his color. I think that's great."

America is ready for a black president, said Rady Williams, 40, who sells T-shirts and King merchandise. "He just has to be clean-cut, drive a Chevy truck and be an apple-pie Christian," he said. "He can't be a crook, and he can't be bitter about slavery."

In Lower Manhattan, at the site of the World Trade Center attacks, a woman sold copies of the New York Post with Obama's face and the headline, "Destiny," alongside the New York Daily News, which proclaimed, simply, "History."

A hot dog vendor from Egypt, serving construction workers at ground zero, pointed to Obama's picture and said, "I like this man. He is a good man." A driver from Haiti clapped his hands and shouted, "Obama, he already the president to me!"

Supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed relief that the Democratic Party may now be able to move on. "I was rooting for Hillary," said Jackie Wlodarczak, 46, a freelance writer, pushing her 3-year-old daughter, Sadie, in a stroller. "I had very much hoped for a woman for president. I still do, and I think we will have one in the future. But Obama is remarkable as well. I think America is more than ready."

In Obama's adopted hometown of Chicago, Sandy Brunson, a 62-year-old retired preschool teacher, was delighted but not surprised by Obama's win. "The idea of a black man in the White House is something I've dreamed of for years," said Brunson, who is black. "Never thought it'd happen, not until Barack came around."

Amy Kaspar, 32, a manager for a money transfer company, ascribed Obama's win to simple sociological dynamics. "In this country, men tend to advance before women," Kaspar said. "When it comes to voting, when it comes to equal pay, when it comes to military service, it's traditionally been men before women."

Kaspar, who is white and a Republican, believes Obama could beat the GOP's presumptive nominee, Sen. John McCain, in November. "Even for Republicans, George W. has overstayed his welcome in the White House, and enough Republicans are thirsty and seeking water elsewhere. Obama's more center of the road, and Republicans can identify with the direction he wants to go in -- even if they disagree with what he's saying."

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