Chuck Sweeny: Obama’s nomination ‘a proud moment’ for State Rep.

Chuck Sweeny

When Chuck Jefferson was growing up in Waco, Texas, in the middle of the 20th century, there were strict rules for “colored people,” and he was careful not to break them.

“I was subject to black and white bathrooms, drinking fountains, and back-door hamburger stands. You couldn’t sit down at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s or Kress’s, you could only buy food for takeout,” said Jefferson, now Rockford’s Democratic state representative and a Barack Obama delegate to the party’s convention in Denver.

I asked Jefferson, 63, if he ever dreamed as a child that a person like him could be elected president. He laughed.

“No. I’d never been outside the South. I just couldn’t imagine African-Americans reaching that high. My brother tried to drink out of a white drinking fountain and someone threatened to call the police on him. You had to learn to live within that system, otherwise you perished.”

Jefferson left Waco, served in the military, and settled in Rockford in 1972. Although the North was not officially segregated, a silent, subtle discrimination existed in Rockford, and still does, he said.

When we talked Wednesday, Jefferson was still pinching himself, getting used to the fact that the Democratic Party will nominate a black man for president. What he believed would never take place in his lifetime had just happened on Tuesday night when Obama secured enough delegates to win the nomination.

“It’s a proud moment, June 3, 2008, not just for every African-American, but for all Americans, to know that we’ve come this far as a nation, to remove an obstacle that’s been there forever,” said Jefferson, who shared his campaign office in 2004 with Obama, then a cash-strapped candidate for U.S. Senate.

“For Illinoisans, this is significant because we’ve got a chance to send another president to Washington, and the first one was Abraham Lincoln.”

I reminded Jefferson that despite Obama’s apparent victory in the race against Hillary Clinton, racism hasn’t magically disappeared from the country. Did Jefferson, who survived American apartheid, think Obama could withstand the coming firestorm of political attacks on him?

“I think Obama’s strong enough, I just hope his family’s strong enough to get through it. He’s endured a lot of threats against his life. But the thing about Barack that will help him win is that he’s genuine. He’s not BS’ing people when he talks to them. He has a lot of vision for this country. And he’s earned the right to be where he is.”

The historic occasionhas captured the imagination of many people throughout the world. Indeed, Obama’s achievement was on the front pages of most newspapers in London. And no less than the Republican secretary of state, the highest ranking African-American in the Bush administration, took note (on Boston.com) of what Obama had just accomplished.

“The United States of America is an extraordinary country. It is a country that has overcome many, many, now years, decades, actually a couple of centuries of trying to make good on its principles,” said Condoleezza Rice, who was a childhood friend of one of the four girls killed on Sept. 15, 1963, in the racist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

“I think what we are seeing is an extraordinary expression of the fact that ‘We the people’ is beginning to mean all of us,” Rice said.

Chuck Sweeny at (815) 987-1372 or csweeny@rrstar.com.