It is now time for the US to nail its colours to the mast
Not since the days of John F Kennedy in the 1960s have we seen anything like it.
Then it was a question of whether white Anglo-Saxon protestant America would vote a Catholic into the White House.
The challenge tomorrow is even more fundamental. Will they support Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, to become the 44th president of the United States?
The choice reaches beyond the economy, or the war in Iraq, or whatever domestic or foreign policy either Obama or John McCain have promoted. The greater political issue at stake here is tolerance.
My memory goes back to that fateful day in Dallas in November 1963. Those of us who were alive that day, know what we were doing. We know the exact moment the news came through and we can still recall the black and white television images from Washington as Kennedy went to his grave in Arlington Cemetery.
For me, a student, it was an extraordinary time. Kennedy's killing shocked us all. I was so overcome with emotion that I sat down and penned a letter to my local paper in County Tyrone where I was at home for the weekend. Around midnight, I walked the mile to the weekly paper offices of the Tyrone Courier and left my letter in the post-box there. The following week I bought the only copy of the Courier that was on sale in a newsagents near Queen's University. There was my letter, enclosed in an appropriately sombre black border, on the front page: ‘In Memoriam by Edmund Curran’.
I've had many hundreds of newspaper by-lines since but that one remains the most special of all and I recall the story today because I sense that Barack Obama has the same charismatic qualities as Kennedy had. That his election this week will inspire another youthful generation to take an interest in politics again as happened all those years ago with Kennedy's leadership.
The opinion polls suggest Obama is a racing certainty but no one can be sure how Americans will react in the privacy of a polling station. We know in Northern Ireland about prejudice and how it can influence how we choose to vote. How it can make us incapable of supporting someone from ‘the other side’ even when we recognise he or she is better than anyone else.
The American election is on a different scale but the test of prejudice remains the same. To what extent will it come into play tomorrow across the United States? This is without doubt a key moment in America's history and in the wider political landscape of the world.
A victory for Barack Obama or a defeat for him will tell us a lot about how far the United States has travelled in the past four decades. How far it has exorcised the images of the Sixties, of Governor George Wallace in Alabama, of the murders of Martin Luther King and the two Kennedy brothers, of the civil rights marches in the deep South and of the Ku Klux Klan.
Much has been made in Washington about Northern Ireland's change from conflict to peace and about how the politico-religious divisions of this country gave way to power-sharing. Obama knows little and probably cares less about Northern Ireland yet if he wins, his election will signal a change in his country's psyche just as we have experienced one here. For Obama, it will be about the colour of his skin. For us, it has been about what foot we kicked with, what church we attended. Even if he wins, the question remains: can Barack Obama survive the course? Is the United States mature enough in 2008 to accept what some within its boundaries couldn't stomach in November 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated?
And what if John McCain surprises us all and wins? Unfortunately such an outcome will send shock waves through black America and the wider non-white world. The expectation of an Obama victory is so high that defeat is barely contemplated in these communities. He has outshone his rivals, first Hilary Clinton and now McCain, but in the last resort might the factor of racial prejudice do him down?
I recall being in Washington in 1996 for the re-election of President Clinton. A lot of readers will not readily remember who his opponent was. The answer was one Robert ‘Bob’ Dole, who like John McCain, was over |70-years-old, with a long and distinguished record of service to America.
His election night party in a Washington hotel — which I attended — turned into a gigantic wake as the big screens above us displayed defeat after defeat. Dole's election helpers were left to drown their sorrows in barrow-loads of Budweiser.
This week's contest has the hall-marks of a re-run, if the polls are correct. In 1996, the expectations were that Bob Dole's integrity would vanquish Bill Clinton's infidelity. Tomorrow we are presented with a choice between another veteran politician and a new generation visionary. The world may never be quite the same again when the votes are counted. It will be a truly historic moment for us all if the White House turns black later this week.