WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Many Americans are marveling that an African-American has risen to become a major candidate for president in a country that has taken a slow, painful path to try to rid itself of racism.
There is no disputing the history-making journey of Barack Obama in winning the Democratic presidential nomination. A half century ago in much of the South he would have been forced to sit behind whites in the back of a bus, and forbidden from eating at some restaurants.
"For those of us who lived through that, and there are millions of black Americans in their 50s or older who intimately remember that horrid system of intolerance, this is a day of celebration," said Manning Marable, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York.
Many Americans see Obama, born to a white mother and Kenyan father, as a direct benefactor of the trail blazed by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who led peaceful protests in the 1960s that forced America to address racial inequality.
"I truly believe that we are in the process of laying down the burden of race. This sends the strongest possible message that America is on the way to the creation of a truly inter-racial democracy," Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who was a civil rights marcher himself, said on MSNBC.
The only black American who came anywhere close to rising in U.S. national politics besides Obama was Jesse Jackson, a King follower who lost the Democratic nomination battle to Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Putting a black American in a position to win the White House has been a slow march, and the United States is far behind some countries when it comes to minority representation at the national level.
Women over the years have at times led countries like Germany, Britain, India, Israel and Liberia, but the world's superpower has had a succession of 43 presidents who have all been white males, from George Washington to George W. Bush.
Black Americans account for about 40 million of the total U.S. population of 300 million, a minority group slightly smaller than Hispanics.
Many African-Americans are descendants of slaves freed after the 1860s Civil War. Some who grew up during the racial upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s see Obama as not the end of the racial divide, but only a step along the way.
"We have not arrived," said Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that King founded. "We must continue to march and demonstrate and protest for justice and equality."
Is Obama ushering in a new era in which blacks and women are true equals with white men?
He can help in this effort but he cannot do it alone, said Erica Chito Childs, a sociology professor at CUNY-Hunter College in New York who wrote a 2005 book about interracial relationships.
"One person can't do that," she said. "Even one person's accomplishments, as noteworthy as they are -- he's one person. I don't know if it is actually going to transform people's beliefs. In fact sometimes things like this bring out underlying racism and sexism."
Experts agree that race will be a factor in the November election. Many wonder whether in the end, enough white Americans will cast a ballot for Obama to make him the victor over Republican John McCain.
"The general election is a Rorschach test of learning how much racism at the political level is still in the system," said presidential scholar Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University.
Marable, the Columbia University professor, said whether he wins or not, Obama has broken through a barrier, a symbol that America has moved dramatically from its segregated past.
"By breaking through this barrier, we can reimagine American democracy in ways that can fulfill its full promise. Without getting too carried away with it, that's a wonderful thing," he said.
(Editing by Eric Beech)
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/