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Obama's election shows how far we have come

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Will race relations suffer?

By Lisa King

History was written just before midnight on Tuesday.

There was Republican John McCain delivering his concession speech in Arizona, confirming what the television networks and wire services had been saying for hours if not days:

Democrat Barack Obama, an African American, would be the 44th president of the United States.

This Harvard-educated son of an African man and a white woman would lead the nation for the next four years, and the emotion of that moment glistened in the tears on the faces of thousands in Chicago, where Obama spoke, and in the focus of millions across the country who watched and listened in awe and disbelief.

One of those in Shelby County was a man named George Stone.

Stone is 98 years old and lives in a nursing home, but he was not about to let age and infirmary keep him from this historic moment.

Inez Harris, a relative, checked Stone out of the nursing home and took him to vote on Tuesday.

"The closer we got to that polling booth, the more excited he became," said Harris, an employee at Shelbyville City Hall. "Truly, it was something to witness. When we finally got there, you wouldn't have even thought he needed that walker.

"He had been following the election, and he really wanted to vote for that fellow. He was born in 1910, and he said if only his daddy could see him now.

"He never thought he would live to see the day when he would be able to vote for an African American for president."

He was not alone, but no matter their race, color, creed or gender, they watched it all unfold.

Crowds for Obama's campaign rallies were of rock-star proportions, and the TV audience for speeches and debates were record size.

On Tuesday, newspapers across the nation printed extra editions, commemorative sections and bold front pages that announced history.

So many of them sold out that they went back to press for more. The Washington Post printed 600,000 more.

The appetite has been overpowering.

"It was truly a wonderful day for him [Stone] and for me. And that was the joy of the whole experience," Harris said.

The story has been so remarkable and captivating that it carries forward with tremendous momentum. But how far will it carry.

As people relax from the adrenaline-fed moment, they now ask the questions of what exactly will Obama's election mean to blacks, whites and other minorities and how all of them will get along in the future.

Here in Shelby County, Obama was not the candidate of choice. The county's populace is mostly white (81 percent) and mostly Democrat (more than 60 percent), but in Tuesday's election, Obama received only 37 percent of the vote, slightly less than he did in Kentucky overall and far below his 52 percent national support.

Brenda Jackson, chairperson of the Shelby County School Board, said she thinks Obama's resonance has been largely with young people who live in am ore integrated society.

"The younger people don't know what it's like to have to sit up in the balcony of a movie theater or be asked to eat your ice cream outside," she said. "Another door has been opened. This will have a positive effect on race relations, even if some people won't admit it."

Juadalupe Vega, an employee at Centro Latino, said she thinks having an African American president will be beneficial to the Hispanic community.

"I think Obama will be good for us because he understands more about how people with a different color skin feels and also how it is to grow up with a single mom," she said. "I think he understands the problems of what we suffer."

Vega said the fact that Obama is African-American was not the determining factor when she cast her vote for the first time in this country.

"I was so excited about finally being able to vote," she said. "I was so happy."

Vega said she doesn't think the new president's race will have a negative effect on race relations-quite the opposite.

"I don't think it will hurt race relations," she said. "I don't think it will be an issue. A lot of white people voted for him, too."

Shelby County Jailer Bobby Waits said that no matter who is in power at the White House, he will not let race issues become a problem at his jail.

"We all know that racism exists, and I think there always will be some racism," he said. "But it's something this country should have gotten over long ago.

"I will not tolerate it at the jail, and everybody here know that, both my employees and the inmates."

Waits said that he doesn't think Obama's race should generate any racial backlash, because the president is a product of both races, having a white mother and an African American father.

"He's not just black, he's white, too," Waits said.

He added that he thinks that what gives Obama the edge is his youth and vitality.

"I think he's what this country needs," he said. "He's a young guy, he's energetic, and we needed that change. I don't care what color he is, as long as he straightens this country out."

And if he's successful, that will underscore the ultimate message that Jackson sees:

"This lets young African-Americans see that in America, you really can get where you want to go if you apply yourself."