Could race determine next U.S. president?

Sheldon Alberts, Canwest News Service

Published: Monday, October 20, 2008

SELMA, Ala. – The day the streets of Selma ran red with the blood of civil rights marchers, James Perkins Jr. was a 12-year-old boy who could barely imagine a time when African-Americans might vote without fear of violence, let alone vote for a black man to become president of the United States.

But that day has come.

Forty-three years after Alabama state troopers beat and tear-gassed 600 voting rights activists during this city’s infamous “Bloody Sunday” march of March 7, 1965, Perkins is set to cast his presidential ballot for Barack Obama.
Everything the lifelong Selma resident sees and hears tells him that Obama should win the Nov. 4 election.

And yet, a troubling question continues to gnaw at Perkins — will racism deny the Illinois senator the White House?

“Race matters in America, and anyone who refuses to acknowledge that is nothing short of an ostrich with their head in the sand,” Perkins says in an interview.

“When it is time to pull that lever, are we going to be prepared to do something that we have never done before — vote for a person of colour to be the president of the United States? That’s a massive change in the way Americans think, and the way we behave.”

More than most Americans — even most black Americans — Perkins knows how issues of race complicate the nation’s politics.

In 2000, he was elected the first black mayor of Selma, defeating the white incumbent, a former segregationist who had held office during the height of racial strife here in the 1960s.

Perkins’s victory in Selma came despite a sustained effort by his opponent to play on old racial fears in the U.S. South. There were ominous warnings that white businesses would flee Selma if he won, and open declarations that a black mayor couldn’t run the city budget.

On election night, Perkins told supporters the campaign had been “about faith and fear,” and that “faith won.”

The worry for Obama, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., is that voters may yet judge him by the colour of his skin, and not the content of his character.

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