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N. Carolina congressman finds Obama's triumph hard to believe

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DENVER — U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield understands why many older black leaders were initially reluctant to back Barack Obama. They had seen too much history: the struggle for the right to vote and the difficulty that black candidates had in winning white acceptance.

"Never did I think we would be able to position ourselves to nominate an African-American as president of the United States," said Butterfield, a catch in his voice. "I did not think it would happen in my lifetime."

Butterfield, 61, has seen much of the history of black advancement in American public life. Butterfield's father, a dentist, was among the first blacks in North Carolina to win election in the 20th Century when he was voted in 1953 to the Wilson City Council.

Butterfield's father took him to the March on Washington in 1963 to watch the famous speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

Butterfield remembers the resentment and hostility he felt when, as a young man, he tried to register voters in Eastern North Carolina.

He was a lawyer involved in many voting rights cases before spending 15 years on the bench, including a stint on the N.C. Supreme Court.

He was elected to Congress in 2004, the same year Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Butterfield joined the rest of North Carolina's Democratic congressional delegation in backing former Sen. John Edwards.

Obama approached Butterfield early last year about endorsing him, but Butterfield said he felt obliged to back the home-state candidate.

Butterfield also says he was skeptical.

Obama "told me he would raise the money," Butterfield said. "I thought he meant a few million dollars. He told me he could compete. I thought he meant two or three states."

Butterfield said he told Obama that he would eventually support him, but he first had to work through his commitment to Edwards.

The ground shifted after Obama won the Iowa caucuses, where the overwhelming number of voters were white. Butterfield called the Obama campaign the next day to tell them he was ready to endorse.

Butterfield said many thoughts will be running through his head when he watches Obama accept the nomination Thursday night. Some will be about black leaders who went before him, men such former Raleigh Mayor Clarence Lightner, former state Sen. John Winters and Durham civic leader John Wheeler.

"I can go on listing those who worked for this day, but who will not see it," Butterfield said. "It's going to be very emotional for me."