Denver – Delegates to the Democratic National Convention here made history Wednesday, formally nominating Barack Obama as the first African-American presidential candidate of a major American political party.
On the floor of the Pepsi Center, several black delegates wept after their states cast votes, with memories of segregation and struggle still fresh.
"I'm just thinking of my grandmother and wishing she was here – she'd been through the civil rights movement," LaKeisha Chestnut, an Alabama delegate, said through sobs after her state cast 48 of its 53 votes for the Illinois senator during a roll call of states Wednesday afternoon. "I'm so honored to be here, … to cast my vote for Barack Obama."
The state-by-state vote Wednesday held little suspense. Obama had won enough delegates by June to claim the nomination. But Wednesday's vote made official what is likely to be remembered as a signal moment in the history of a country that once condoned slavery and denied blacks the vote.
"He represents the ultimate dreams and aspirations of millions and millions of African-Americans," says Christopher Parker, an expert on race and politics at the University of Washington. "For anyone over 30" – old enough to remember the civil rights movement – "it's a massive symbolic victory."
The nomination vote Wednesday was equal parts formal procedure and careful stagecraft. Following an agreement between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his fierce rival for the nomination, Senator Clinton interrupted the roll call after about half the states had voted. She moved to suspend the state-by-state tally and nominate Obama by a floorwide voice vote, or acclamation.
"On behalf of great State of New York," she began, after wading into a scrum of delegates from her home state, "with appreciation of the spirit and dedication of all who are gathered here, with eyes firmly fixed on the future, in the spirit of unity, with the goal of victory, with faith in our party and our country, let's declare together in one voice right here right now that Barack Obama is our candidate and he will be our president."
The thousands of delegates in the arena roared their approval, and the "ayes" had it. If there were any "nays," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi banged her gavel too quickly for them to be heard.
At 4:48 p.m. Mountain Time, Speaker Pelosi, chairman of the convention, declared Obama the party's nominee, and the band launched into "Love Train" as the sea of delegates waved signs, danced, and cheered.
At a meeting with supporters earlier in the day, Clinton released her pledged delegates – freeing them from the results of primaries and caucuses in their home states.
"I am not telling you what to do," she told the hundreds of delegates gathered at the Colorado Convention Center earlier Wednesday, according to news accounts. But she noted that she had "signed my ballot this morning for Senator Obama."
To judge from the nearly three dozen states and territories that announced their vote before the roll call was stopped, many – but not all – pledged delegates heeded Clinton's call to rally behind Obama.
Delegates from Arkansas, where Clinton logged her biggest victory margin in the primaries and where her husband was governor, went unanimously for Obama in honor of her call for unity. So did the state that handed Clinton her first primary victory, New Hampshire.
Soon after the vote by acclamation, Pelosi announced that Obama had accepted the Democratic nomination. On the final night of the convention Thursday, Obama will deliver his acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium before an expected crowd of some 80,000 people.
– Monitor photographer Mary Knox Merrill contributed to this story.