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Democratic Convention Made History
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Democratic Convention Made History

Election 2008

Democratic Convention Made History

Democratic Convention Made History
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The Democratic National Convention and Barack Obama's nomination the party's presidential candidate shows the historic changes that can occur in a lifetime. Obama's octogenarian uncle Charles Payne might never have imagined some of these changes.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The moment when Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president this week was a marker in history that is beyond politics. But I think we got another glimpse tonight before when he introduced the man he calls Uncle Charlie - Charles Payne, his grandmother's brother. Michelle Obama clasped his hand. A niece with dark skin, holding the hand and kissing the cheek of her husband's granduncle, who is white.

Charles Payne was born in Kansas in 1925. Women had won the right to vote only five years before. In many places, African-Americans were still practically barred from voting. The United States was isolated between two oceans, but the great immigration had deposited people from all over the world between the coasts. Many were happy to be isolated because they fled despots, pogroms, and what amounted to life sentences of poverty and servitude.

Still, there were signs hanging up in America that said, "Whites Only," "No Negroes," Jews are Dogs," and "No Irish Need Apply." Charles Payne graduated from high school in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Army along with most every other young man from his class. He was sent to Europe after the Normandy invasion and was with one of the Army units that liberated a sub-camp of the infamous Buchenwald, though Charles Payne himself has apparently always felt a little awkward about putting it that way.

I have no heroic story to tell, he's told many reporters. I was just there. He used the G.I. bill to go to the University of Chicago. At the time he retired, just 13 years ago, he was assistant director of the library there. The army Charles Payne joined that ventured across oceans to free Europe and Asia was courageous and self-sacrificing. It was also segregated. I wonder if Charles Payne ever envisioned that his family would one day include African-Americans, including a young nephew who would be nominated for president, or that other candidates would be women.

Barack Obama has graciously repeated, even in - perhaps especially in - moments of supreme triumph, that he knows he stands on the shoulders of others, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. And effecting, when he recalls the mother and grandmother, who as he says, poured everything they were into him.

This week, it may be important for others to point out how much Senator Obama has won with his own intelligence, eloquence and confidence. His 83-year-old Uncle Charles Payne has seen evidence of both the crime of the century and the nobility of humanity. It's part of the generation that came home from war and made America live up to its promises.

This week, Charles Payne's presence was a reminder that good people can move history and that in a free county, astonishing things can happen in just a span of a good man's life.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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