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African American Scholars, Voters See Inauguration as Meaningful Change

For nearly 90 years, Gene Shipp has fought.  He fought for his country during World War II and Korea, and was awarded a Bronze Star by President Richard Nixon for his service in Vietnam.  For the better part of 60 years, Shipp, an African-American, has also fought for his views in the voting booth, a right which seemed less than inalienable when he was young.

“I voted during President [Franklin] Roosevelt’s Day, that was my first time of voting back in the 30s, late 30’s, so I’ve been voting every since,” Shipp said.  “I never voted until I was in the military.  Where I grew up, voting was out of the question, no voting.  I grew up back in the horse and buggy age. And I’ve seen a lot of changes in my life as you know, being 90 years old.”

Shipp had seen black men run for president, including recent political hopefuls like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Alan Keyes, but they all failed to gain a major party’s nomination, a barrier Barack Obama overcame.  But when Obama won November’s general election, it signaled a sea of change for some scholars.

“Many people my age and older, probably even a little bit younger, really talked about the fact that this was something they thought they would never see,” said Indiana University political science professor Lawrence Hanks.  “The whole notion of a black president was a joke, something that people joked about. At the same time it was something that folks dreamed about, but it was never something that was considered plausible.”

But I.U. Assistant Professor of History Khalil Muhammad said Barack Obama’s election alone hasn’t removed all those obstacles.

“Indications of residential segregation, of economic discrimination, of systemic ,institutional racism that existed on Nov. 3 existed on Nov. 5 and continue to be with us today,” he said. “We have to be careful not to pronounce racism in America dead as a result of the election of Barack Obama.  That doesn’t mean however that there aren’t new possibilities and a new momentum.”

But Hanks takes a more forward-looking view of what Obama’s inauguration will mean in the future and what it signifies about the messages of Doctor Martin Luther King Junior and other civil rights leaders…

“Each time you see Barack Obama on television now your notion of what a black man is has to change, and it has to change for the positive because you’ve got one who’s running the country,” he said.  “I’m an optimist. I think things will continue to progress, that we will finally get to King’s beloved community, the whole idea where race does not matter; color does not matter. ”

For Gene Shipp, however, the victory is less abstract and more personal.

“It inspired me so much to know that my race was trying to reach freedom, which we all deserved and I had fought for in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It meant so much to me that I had fought and now it’s a reality,” Shipp said. “It’s happened, in my day a black president-elect in our country.  It means so much to me!”

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