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By Kenneth Meeks
He gave the speech of his life. With grace and confidence, a relatively unknown Illinois state senator stood before a sea of cheering delegates at Boston’s FleetCenter, home to this year’s Democratic National Convention. In an electrifying keynote address, the poised politician spoke of his lineage; uniting a nation across racial, ideological, and economic lines; and, most importantly, the promise of the American dream.
“If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child,” he told delegates as they exploded into applause and cheers during his speech. “If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. … There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
After his address of unity and hope—one that energized a party and set the tone for the presidential race to come—the nation witnessed the birth of a new political star: Barack Obama. They not only saw a man who is almost assured of ascending to the U.S. Senate representing the state of Illinois, but a politician pundits say has the timber to one day become America’s first African American president.
So who is this candidate many speculate is in contention for the White House? To answer that question, BLACK ENTERPRISE went on the road with Obama—to three cities on a campaign tour through southern Illinois—a month before he stepped onto the national stage. We discovered his platform, his political passion, his background, and the aspirations of “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him.”
ON THE ROAD
On a warm and rainy June morning in Springfield, the state capital, the 42-year-old three-term senator who represents Chicago’s South Side addresses a packed room of mostly white, blue-collar workers at the AFL-CIO building. In the back of the room, a unionist holds up a sign that reads: “The Land of Lincoln Loves Senator Obama.”
Today, Obama listens to Ada Owens, a Decatur woman who worked at the Bridgestone/Firestone manufacturing plant for 27 years before it closed in 2001. The plant, which employed as many as 1,200 people, shut down as a result of the recall of Firestone tires that dominated headlines several years ago. Now, Decatur is on the verge of becoming a ghost town.
“I was able to get a negotiated package but too young for Social Security, so that meant I had to go out and look for another job,” Owens says in a shaky voice worn