Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Utah law professor Erika George, an alternate to the Democratic Convention, sits near a portrait of her mother, who was beaten for playing in a "whites only" area.

Erika George's mother had scars on her legs until the day she died. They came from a beating she endured from a Louisiana mob angered because she was playing at a "whites only" playground. She was black.

Now George, as a Utah alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention that begins Monday, will participate in something that her mother could never have imagined — the expected nomination of Barack Obama, a black man, to be the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.

"I do find myself wondering if she could have imagined the world today, one that she and others like her worked to realize," said George, now a law professor at the University of Utah.

As a black woman, she said, "The past civil rights work has made me, a professor, and Obama, a senator, imaginable ... It is my hope that we have progressed to a point where the American people will understand that a person of color can be a leader for all people in the nation."

Obama is set to accept the nomination on Thursday —45 years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. In it, he said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Utah's delegates to the convention join in seeing Obama's nomination as a milestone in the long push for racial equality — and it is especially meaningful for many of those delegates who are minorities.

Like Obama, delegate Theodore Cowan Jr., 25, secretary of the grassroots Utah for Obama group, has a mixed racial heritage, half black and half white.

He said, "The significance of the first half-black president may be lost on me because of my younger age. (But) I see it as a transformation of our political culture."

Cowan said that when he was a youngster in West Jordan, his family had a few problems from a lingering remnant of the Ku Klux Klan in the area, and he experienced a few problems from other youths. But he said, "Altogether, I think Utah is the most racially tolerant state I've ever been in."

Still, he revels in the now-national progress shown by Obama's nomination.

Josie Valdez, a Hispanic delegate who is also the Democratic nominee for Utah's lieutenant governor, said, "This is exciting. It means that America is the land of opportunity for all people, regardless of color or race."

She adds, "It means that we are progressing, not that people of color 'have made it,' but that we are moving forward in our quest for freedom and access to opportunity."

State Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, a delegate who is also one of three openly gay members of the Utah Legislature, said, "Electing a black man as president will make good on America's promise that all people are created equal."

State Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, a delegate and another gay member of the Legislature, said, "I consider the nomination of a black man to be the strongest state of evolution in civil rights in the nation. ... Hopefully, it will mean that future elections of other minority leaders will actually be color blind, and that race or gender or sexual orientation will be a non-issue."

Arlyn Ray Bradshaw, a gay delegate, said Obama's nomination shows the party "has finally moved beyond the practice that only a white male can attain the highest office in the land. This election will be inspirational to all minorities and women, showing that there are no limits to what they can achieve."

Brian Spittler is a different sort of minority — a leader of Democrats at Brigham Young University, known for being overwhelmingly conservative and Republican.

"The nomination of Barack Obama shows the distance that our country has come in tolerance, and I think that is exciting," he said.

Other delegates, minorities or not, revel not only at what Obama's nomination means in the history of civil rights, but the fact that most people are looking at him for what he offers and not paying much attention to the color of his skin.

Delegate Millicent Lewis, who is white, said, "My mother fought for civil rights in the '50s and '60s. When I look at Sen. Obama, I see an intelligent, thoughtful, careful, considerate man. I particularly look forward to having a president who is smarter than me."

She adds, "His race is irrelevant to me in terms of his capabilities. But I absolutely expect our estimation in the eyes of the world to go up. Cowboy, good ol' boy politics has ruined our reputation worldwide and a President Obama will go a long way toward repairing the warped image people have of America."

Delegate Kurt Bestor, a jazz composer and performer, said, "I am anxious for the day when race, religion, sexual preference and gender are irrelevant when choosing a presidential candidate. This election is historic in that it represents a changing of the guard."

Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, a delegate, said, "The nomination of Sen. Obama demonstrates our country's willingness to look beyond race and color to a candidate's qualifications and ability to inspire and lead our nation."

Delegate Jan Lovett summed the meaning of Obama's nomination to her in one word, "Possibility."

George delights in seeing how far America has come.

"I didn't think we as a public would have it in us to support an African American for the nation's highest public office. Both of my parents were the oldest of eight children. They came of age in Louisiana under very unforgiving Jim Crow laws."

Not only was her mother beaten for playing on a "white" playground, "she was arrested for her participation in civil rights protests," George said. Such sacrifice has led to the point where Obama and other minorities can be nominated.

"Sorry she and those who made it possible are not here to see it," George lamented.


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