Waiting more than a century for change

Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106–year–old Atlanta woman whose long life was put on an international stage in Barack Obama's sweeping victory speech, had declared she "ain't got time to die" – because she wanted to watch a black man elected president of the United States.

When Mrs Cooper was born on 9 January 1902, in Shelbyville, Tennessee, 50 miles south of Nashville, women and African Americans were denied the vote. White women were enfranchised in 1920, but she had to wait until 1965 – when she was 63 – for black Americans to be certain of the same rights. And as hundreds of thousands of Atlanta residents flooded to the polls in early voting last month, she cast her ballot for the history-making Democrat. "No matter what, you get out and vote," the former socialite declared then, when she was greeted at the polling station by the Atlanta mayor and a barrage of television crews. Later she told CNN that she was waiting for election night with much excitement. "I ain't got time to die, because I got to see a black person. Yeah, I got to watch that."

And then, in front of 250,000 people in Chicago and millions around the world watching on television, President-elect Obama declared that she was top of his mind. "Tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America," he said, "the heartache and the hope, the struggle and the progress, the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can."

Despite a broken hip, two heart attacks and numerous blood transfusions in the past year, Mrs Cooper is full of the smiles and jokes and optimism that made her a minor celebrity in Atlanta. She still lives in the home – on a street named after Martin Luther King, the local pastor turned national civil rights leader, who she used to know – that she set up with her husband, who was a successful African American dentist. Apart from a short stint as a policy writer for the Atlanta Life insurance company, she has been a home-maker, community activist and socialite, serving on countless local boards. Some of her early scrapbooks and pictures are in a collection of African American history here at the Atlanta-Fulton library.

And now she has become a symbol of the sweep of human history into which the new American president has cast himself. What, he wondered, would be the changes a new political generation would deliver to those that come after, and what change would his own two daughters see if they lived to be as old as Mrs Cooper.

"She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky," Mr Obama said. "She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that We Shall Overcome. A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change." The indignities and the segregations of life as a black woman in the South are still seared into the centenarian's memory, including the time she was threatened by a white man on a bus. "I sat down with my packages," she remembered recently, "and he said: 'Don't sit down in front of me.' I see that hasn't been too many years ago."

Now, she hopes to see the inauguration of the first black US president, perhaps even travel to Washington for it. And she confided the secret of her long life: "I don't know how it happened, but being cheerful all the time might have a lot to do with it."

Timeline: Milestones in the history of black America

1619

The first African slaves are brought into North America aboard a Dutch ship, arriving in Virginia.

1773

Phillis Wheatley, a slave who arrived in the US as a young child, becomes the first African American writer to publish a book of verse, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral".

1852

Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel which had a massive influence on public perception of the trade, is published.

1861

Civil War erupts after 11 pro-slavery southern states break away to form the Confederacy. When the Unionprevails in 1865, an estimated four million slaves are freed after bondage is abolished.

1870

Hiram Revels, a Mississippi Republican who fought in the Civil War, becomes the first black senator and serves for a year.

1936

African-American athlete Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, having set three world records in Michigan the year before.

1947

The segregation of American baseball is broken as Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American player in major league baseball, signing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1955

This was the year an ordinary black seamstress refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Alabama. Her name was Rosa Parks and her arrest led to the Montgomery bus boycotts. Her revolt is often credited with launching the era of protests that lasted through the 1960s.

1957

Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus orders state troops to prevent a group of African-American students from entering the Central High School in Little Rock. After violence breaks out, President Dwight D Eisenhower sends 1,000 paratroopers to protect the "Little Rock Nine", as the students become known, and escort them into class.

1959

The legendary record label, Motown Records, whose artists will include Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross & The Supremes, is founded in Detroit.

1963

A quarter of a million people gather for the March on Washington and hear the most famous piece of oratory of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream". In the same year, Sidney Poitier becomes the first African American to win a best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field.

1964

Cassius Clay joins the Nation of Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali.

1965

Malcolm X, a major civil rights leader and spokesman for Black Nationalism, is assassinated.

1968

Tommie Smith and John Carlos give the Black Power salute on the podium at the Mexico Olympics after winning gold and bronze respectively in the 200m. The two are suspended from the American team, banned from the Olympic village and sent back to the United States. In the same year, Martin Luther King is assassinated.

1972

Shirley Chisholm, already the first black woman to sit in the House of Representatives, becomes the first African American to run for president, gaining 151 convention delegates in her bid to become the Democratic nominee. Jesse Jackson becomes the second in 1983.

1992

When Rodney King is caught by the LAPD after a car chase in 1991, a member of the public videotapes him being beaten and shot with a Taser gun. When the four white police officers are acquitted a year later, riots in Los Angeles leave more than 50 dead.

2001

Colin Powell is appointed by George Bush as the first African-American Secretary of State.

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