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Former Hartford Mayors Again Witnesses To History

By JESSE A. HAMILTON | Washington Bureau Chief

August 29, 2008

DENVER - The mayoral pair travels like brother and sister trading light jabs, well used to each other's company on what has amounted to a 45-year road. From a 1963 moment on the long lawn of Washington to the chief office of Hartford to this mile-high city's momentous night, Thirman L. Milner and Carrie Saxon Perry have seen much together.

"Too many years," Milner said with a smile.

"The curse," Perry bit back.

In 1981, Milner became Hartford's first black mayor, and by extension, the first elected to run a New England city. Perry followed in 1987, the first black woman to run Hartford and the first to gain such a post in any major Northeastern city. And so, history links them forever.

But their lives had crossed well before their 1980s claim to the mayor's office. They were among the hundreds of thousands who marched on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They were there when King made a speech that would gain unforeseen power over time until it landed Thursday with uncanny resonance at the feet of a black man accepting a presidential nomination. Forty-five years later, to the day.

And Milner and Perry had come to see it, this far end of The Dream. Now a little slower with age than they were when the living King was inspiring people, they agreed to accept U.S. Rep. John Larson's own Democratic National Convention tickets when he offered two floor seats for the night in which Barack Obama would claim his nomination to be the presidential nominee.

First, though, there was church.

The New Hope Baptist Church in Denver was having a 45th anniversary celebration of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. (On the way, Perry insisted that the driver Larson's chief of staff stop for gas, admitting that bossiness goes hand in hand with mayoral experience.) At the church, the Hartford pair claimed their dignitary seating in the front pews. They listened to the choir as it performed "Lift Every Voice and Sing," with its message: "Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us."

The church's pastor, Ambrose F. Carroll, talked of the long-ago loss of King. "Since that time, we have been rising and falling. We have been hopeful for the dream." And now, he said, "The dream of Martin King is becoming a reality. It is a brand new era."

U.S. Rep. John Lewis from Georgia stood to speak, too. "I was there when Martin Luther King said, 'I have a dream today,'" Lewis said. "Forty-five years ago. I was there." Lewis had been the sixth speaker at the Lincoln Memorial, with the thousands stretching past the reflecting pool. King was 10th. "He preached to America. He shared his dream."

Lewis, who said he's the last still alive from the speakers that day, is glad that God let him live "to witness this historic day." He added, "Let's march to the ballot box like we never marched before."

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn from South Carolina rose to compare King with Moses, leading his people through hard, lost years 40 years since King's death. "From that day until now, we have wandered. Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe that come Nov. 4, we'll get to the Promised Land."

The former Hartford mayors aren't quite ready to call The Dream realized. Maybe "partially," Milner said. "It a great step forward."

They understand the kind of pressure history can bring. "Being the first is a challenge even in a small city like Hartford," said Milner, who remembers a woman in Hartford telling him in 1980, "We don't want your kind as mayor of our city."

"I can well imagine what Barack is probably going through now," he said. He wore a button on his brown suit jacket that showed King and Obama's faces together, with the text: "A Legacy of Hope."

Milner and Perry have been to a convention before: the 1988 Democratic convention, in which the Rev. Jesse Jackson was a candidate. Milner, who had coordinated the Jackson campaign in Connecticut, acted as a floor manager for the unsuccessful bid. (Jackson took about 30 percent of the delegates in a race in which the Democrats' current vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joe Biden, was another of the losing candidates.)

Now, for better or worse, Milner is taking on Obama's strides as his own. "To me, this is the climax of my political career," he said before Obama's speech. "I never thought it would happen in my lifetime."

A moment later, he added, "The real climax will be when he's sworn in ." "That hand on the bible," Perry inserted.

From shuttle bus and leg-saving golf cart, Perry and Milner made it past the imposing lines outside the stadium Obama chose for the unconventional climax of his convention: Invesco Field. Inside the home of Broncos football, the place was filling to its brim all eyes looking down at the event stage, a columned platform evoking a Greek temple. A little piece of designed-for-grandness D.C. architecture right there in the end zone, where rock stars and their political equivalents were warming up the Democratic troops.

The mayors took their seats in Section 110 and prepared for the onset of history.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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