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We have just witnessed of those rare moments in history that millions will remember in precise detail forever more. Like many of my generation of progressive Canadians, I've had four "Where were you when?" moments until now, all related to social justice and indirectly to racial justice - or injustice.

The first was the 1963 Kennedy assassination, because it was so enormous and unanticipated, and because JFK seemed to us to have so crassly sold out the liberalism and racial justice he led us to expect. But like almost all my peers, I'll never forget where I was when I learned he had been shot.

My second was actually a tragic two-parter: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Jack's brother, in the span of two months in 1968. Dr. King's murder was of course the ultimate racist weapon and the ruthless Bobby had transformed himself into the liberal voice of poor, exploited Americans. In the flames of the civil rights movement and its enemies, he offered a new hope that was never to be tested.

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The third occasion remains seared in my mind forever - Nelson Mandela walking out of prison in 1990. My wife and I had been active in anti-apartheid activities our entire lives and we were certain we'd never see him free again in his lifetime. We sat together and wept without embarrassment when he emerged.

Fourth was the night of Sept. 6, 1990, when the NDP won the government of Ontario. As a party strategist and historian, I had personally guaranteed Bob Rae he would never become premier, and by the time he was unceremoniously turfed out, many wished I had been right. But 'twas bliss, 'twas very heaven to have been part of that night.

Last night was the fifth. I will never forget till the day I disappear the swelling, choked-up emotion when the TV networks declared Sen. Obama the winner. Symbolically, if alas not substantively, it's the opposite end of the American spectrum from the murders of Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King. A free Nelson Mandela was at least a dream, however unrealizable it had seemed. The thought of a black U.S. president was, until almost yesterday, literally unthinkable and unthought.

Don't ask me why, but racial justice has been my own preoccupation all my life. Before I ever got involved with Africa I visited the American south. In 1957, three University of Toronto students - Owen Shime, Stephen Lewis and I - got it into our youthful, idealistic heads to see for ourselves the Old South. This was at the very beginning of the mass American civil rights movement that really exploded in the 1960s. Rosa Parks' civil disobedience was only two years old; Martin Luther King was just finding his voice and his audience; Little Rock was exploding before our eyes in front of Central High. But in many ways, the South had barely changed in the previous 80 years.

We knew conditions for Negroes (then the polite term) were deplorable. But we soon found them to be far more appalling than anything we could imagine. Maybe three Canadian university kids could never fathom the actual lives of people who weren't considered people. That was what we mainly learned, from white and black alike, in half a dozen Southern states.

"All men are created equal," the Declaration of Independence vowed. But black men and women weren't considered equal. Slaves they had legally been in the South, and even after the bloody Civil War, slaves in practice they remained. In the North, life was only marginally better for most blacks. It was the bloody stain on the American soul that many of us could never forgive.

One night in Atlanta, Georgia, after a Jewish couple in a kosher deli had assured us of the innate inferiority of "coloreds," none of us could sleep in our shared room at the YMCA. Spontaneously, sometime in the middle of the night, we put on the light and then and there vowed never to rest until racial injustice had been eliminated. I think we sensed that this was pretty melodramatic stuff, borderline precious, and we were duly self-conscious. But at the same time we passionately meant it, and I dare say we have meant it ever since.

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And so my fifth unforgettable historic moment: President Obama. The phrase comes so naturally now.

The man has looked, felt presidential for the last many months. But in the light of a lifetime's experiences, I have little doubt he will disappoint many of us, not least African Americans. He is too cautious, too moderate, too American ironically, too much a true believer in American exceptionalism, not to disappoint.

At the same time, his core conviction - that there's no blue or red America, liberal or conservative America, white or black America, but only the United States of America - was viciously disproved every day of the last two years by his various antagonists in both parties. Sarah Palin's Real Americans and their media hacks and Naomi Klein's Corporate Americans and their mighty lobbyists will make his life hell.

But no setbacks, no disappointments, can ever undo the intoxication of this unique moment. Mine eyes have seen the glory - even if only for a night.

Gerald Caplan's latest book is The Betrayal of Africa.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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