Obama's election gives some black Missouri leaders hope

Wednesday, November 5, 2008 | 8:46 p.m. CST; updated 12:17 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 6, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — As Democrat Barack Obama assumes the position of president-elect in the U.S., many Missouri black leaders said this may open doors for a black politician to become a statewide elected official.

Missouri has never elected a black official to a statewide office, such as governor, attorney general or secretary of state.                                                        

State House Minority Whip and Rep. Connie Johnson, D-St. Louis City, said she is not completely convinced Missouri is ready to elect a black statewide official. She said if the issue doesn't get addressed, the problem will continue.

"It takes a willingness to sit down and discuss the issue openly," Johnson said. "I think part of the issue with race and politics is nobody wants to discuss it. It's like the pink elephant in the room, and everybody keeps walking around it. Nobody ever says, 'Oh, look at that pink elephant.' "

Still, Johnson said she is optimistic that Obama's win will prompt more conversation on the issue.

"I'm hopeful that it will open the door to having a discussion about having an African-American in the statewide (office) one day," Johnson said.

Missouri's popular vote ended up being very close, with 49.4 percent voting for Sen. John McCain, the GOP candidate, and 49.2 percent voting for Obama.

"For as long as I can recall, Missouri at that level, other than what I saw Jay Nixon do this time, has always been 50.5 (percent) to 49.5 (percent)," said state Rep. Theodore Hoskins, D-St. Louis County. "It's been close regardless of if it was a Republican that won or a Democrat that won. I think it's an equal Democrat and Republican state."

Johnson agreed, referencing how conservative Missouri is and how much of it is rural. She said Obama's loss in Missouri is consistent with the little-to-no gain of seats in the Missouri House of Representatives and Senate by Democrats.

"And (Obama) was a young guy who had not had extensive experience versus an older guy who was a POW and decorated military veteran," Johnson said. "So, I think that those things really played well in Missouri."

Some Missouri black leaders are hesitant to be overly optimistic, however.

"Let's not fool ourselves; we're in a very conservative state, and we don't operate in a vacuum, and racism is still alive," said Rep. Talibdin "T.D." El-Amin, D-St. Louis City.

Although El-Amin remained cautious about the possibilities, he spoke of his hope for the future.

"When I looked at Obama (Tuesday) night, I really saw my son and he said he wanted to be president," El-Amin said, pointing to a portrait of his 7-year-old son, Hasan, on the bookcase in his office. 

El-Amin said as a child, he did not believe his father when he said El-Amin could be president one day.

"Understanding racism in a society and understanding the barriers, he probably didn't believe that," El-Amin said. "Now, when I look at my son — all my sons — I say, you know what, maybe they can do that. So what I'm telling him now is that maybe in 2042, he can be a candidate for president."

As an African-American, a father and "with a funny name like Obama," El-Amin said, Obama's win "gives us hope."

Former Sen. J.B. "Jet" Banks, D-St. Louis City, was the last black politician to be the majority leader of the Missouri Senate. He held the position from 1988 to 1996. He died in October 2003.

Ronnie White was the first and only black judge on the Missouri Supreme Court. He retired from his seat in July of 2007 and was not available for an interview.

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