Updated on March 21, 2016
The moment for many Americans is seared into their memories. More than 71 million people watched election night on network and cable TV on November 4, 2008—the highest-rated election coverage in almost three decades—and nearly a quarter-million crowded into Grant Park in Chicago to await the results with anticipation. That night, a centuries-old taboo was broken, and a new era in U.S. politics was ushered in with Barack Obama’s sweeping triumph. Beyond the political ramifications, America had elected its first black president and the reactions were swift and dramatic.
Black Americans turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers, galvanized by the historic quality of a presidential race that could possibly put a black family in the White House. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil-rights-movement icon who protested with Martin Luther King, thought of the slain leader as Obama’s first win became clear. As Lewis told NPR the next day, “I felt like shouting, but I just said, ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah,’ ‘cause I knew Martin Luther King himself was looking down on us saying, ‘Hallelujah.’”
The worldwide response was equally jubilant. Obama’s election was seen as a remarkable shift signaling a more inclusive America. Even outgoing president George Bush commended the president-elect on the significance of his victory, noting that Obama represented “a triumph of the American story … Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day.”
Obama’s electoral landslide was momentous for many because of what it represented about America’s past, burdened by centuries of slavery, segregation, and racial prejudice. Yet for an entire segment of the public without that frame of reference—namely, pre-adolescents who came of age over the last eight years—the Obama presidency is still groundbreaking. I recently gathered a racially and ethnically diverse group of students from Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss the first black U.S. president and to get their take on whether Obama has changed this generation’s views of the country’s possibilities or shaped their own aspirations.
Melinda D. Anderson: In 2008, when he was elected, there was a lot written about President Obama being the first black president. What does it mean to you that America elected a black man to be its president?
Josh Frost, 13: It shows we can change, because it shows that not only white people can be in the government. More people of different races would like to be president now, because Barack Obama became president. Before there were only white presidents, so they probably thought they had to be like them to do the job.
Avi Kedia, 12: It shows something [about] America, that somebody from a different race, other than white, can win the presidential election. We shouldn't base the presidents just on race, we should base it on their actual skill. But it shows that somebody from a different race can rise up and go against what everybody else says and win. I could be president if I really wanted to. I just have to push myself. And it doesn’t matter if I’m Indian. It opens the door for everything really. If someone black can be president after it forever being white presidents, maybe a woman can be president. Or we can have a gay president. None of that even matters anymore.