NEW YORK -- At this astonishing moment, let us pause to reflect: Just 40 years ago, the kind of marriage that brought Barack Obama into the world — one between a black man and a white woman — was illegal in 16 states.
We have come such a long way, in so very little time.
Not all the way, of course. There is still racism in America, as we are reminded again and again — most recently, during Obama's campaign itself ("I'm afraid if he wins, the blacks will take over," one woman told a camera crew at an Ohio rally for John McCain).
But there was a time when blacks had to defer to white drivers at intersections in some states; when by law, circuses in Louisiana had to maintain separate entrances and ticket offices for the races; when the Lonestar Restaurants Association of Dallas posted signs that read, "No Dogs Negroes Mexicans."
And it is all within living memory.
Segregation laws extended from the 19th century until the mid 1960s. It wasn't just the South; as recently as 1949, 29 states outlawed intermarriage. The toughest penalties — 10 years in prison — were levied in Indiana and the Dakotas.
And it wasn't just the state and local governments. Until 1948, the U.S. military was segregated. Until the last year of World War II, the U.S. Navy did not commission a single black officer. By the end of the war, there were just 58 black ensigns or lieutenants out of 160,000 black sailors.
Blatant discrimination was everywhere. In 1948, dancer Josephine Baker and her French husband went to 36 hotels in New York City before finding one where they could stay.
And racist violence was nearly as widespread. The Tuskegee Institute counted the lynchings: Between 1882 and 1964, 3,446 blacks were killed in 36 states.
But it was the South where the blood flowed freely, where 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten beyond recognition because he whistled at a white woman in 1955, where Sgt. Isaac Woodard, returning from the war in 1946, was arrested by a police chief for disrespecting a bus driver — and then was blinded by a blackjack's blows. The chief was acquitted in 28 minutes.
It was the South that perfected myriad ways to bar blacks from voting. Intimidation usually worked: The best way to keep a black person from voting — and here, Theodore Bilbo used an infinitely more offensive word for black person — was "to see him the night before election." Bilbo parlayed such tactics into eight years as Mississippi's governor and 12 years in the U.S. Senate, ending in 1947.
If that didn't succeed, whites-only primaries, poll taxes and literacy tests did the trick — the last requiring would-be voters to recite the state or national constitutions from memory, or translate nonsensical Latin phrases like "Itar, E. Quar Tum Enteria Ventricular" (whites were never asked such questions).
It worked for a long while. In 1960, only 22,000 Mississippi blacks were registered to vote out of a population of 915,743. Then came the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, by 1966, 175,000 Mississippi blacks were registered. By 2008, it was believed that blacks were as likely to be registered voters as whites.
It wasn't enough to turn that red state blue on Tuesday. But across the country, blacks whose parents and grandparents were once denied the franchise went to the polls in enormous numbers.
And overwhelmingly, they voted for the first black president of the United States.