The seminal moment in the lives of many African-Americans who came of age in the 1960s often is related to the civil-rights movement: the Supreme Court desegregation of public schools, the freedom marches in the South, the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

  But Morris Pichon, himself a son of the South, says the most pivotal moment in his life occurred this year.

  "The Iowa caucuses," said Pichon, a 66-year-old retired Lockheed Martin Corp. manufacturing analyst who lives in Pacoima with his wife, Barbara. "When I saw that Caucasians in Iowa were going to the polls and voting overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, a black man, I knew that for the first time, after all these years, Americans had woken up.

  "American Caucasians were judging a black man on something other than the color of his skin, and I knew: This is a new America."

  Pichon's new America takes another step forward tonight when Obama gives his speech accepting the Democratic nomination, becoming the first African-American presidential nominee of a major political party.

  Obama's historic moment comes on the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

  Tears well up in Pichon's eyes when he talks about how far the country has progressed, tears that might be better understood knowing that his hard-working parents raised nine children in the 1950s in New Orleans and their advice to each became


a mantra: Get as far away from the South and its racism as you can.

  "If you were a young black man, you not only had to stay out of the way of the New Orleans Police Department, but also the White Citizens Council, the Ku Klux Klan and any other white thugs who were around," he said.

  "You learn to avoid where you're not wanted. You learn to avoid heartbreak. You learn to be invisible, if you can."

  Even today … in a city that has become synonymous with black political power in California … African-Americans' presence in the San Fernando Valley often goes unseen.

  While there are 75,520 African-Americans in the Valley - 4.3 percent of the population - it's about half the overall total in Los Angeles, and their role is far less influential.

  Still, it might be in the Valley that blacks have come to find the elusive jewel of social equality as many have migrated from the Northeast Valley, where they were previously relegated, to West Valley neighborhoods that were off limits just two generations ago.

  From 1970 to 2000, the African-American population in the Northwest Valley rose 1,259percent … from 848 to 11,522 - and in the Southwest Valley it jumped 2,784 percent - from 285 to 8,222, according to the San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center at California State University, Northridge.

  "The number of African-Americans have increased, but aren't reflected because the population as a whole has grown even more," says Daniel Blake, CSUN professor of economics and director of the center.

  A large number of African-Americans, many in the working class, continue to live in the Northeast Valley.

  As one of the few places without housing-ownership restrictions, Pacoima in the years after World War II became the Valley's center of black culture.

  African-Americans in Los Angeles new to the area were lured by cheap housing and a tract-home development called Joe Louis Homes, marketed to blacks. The rest of the Valley, however, remained off limits.

  But the shift to other areas of the Valley, say black residents of the West Valley, is emblematic of the hope Obama holds for all Americans - especially African-Americans.

  "I think it's the message more than it is the messenger," behavioral therapist Sylvia Griffin of Sherman Oaks said of why she, as an African-American woman, supports Obama.

  "The message, the energy, that this is my country, and I can do something to change it."

  The sentiment echoes a recent Gallup/USA Today poll of 2,000 registered African-American voters that found that 65 percent believe an Obama victory would help improve race relations.

  But while many black Valley residents may support Obama's presidential campaign, they are far from simplistic on the politics of race in America.

  "It may not be generational, but there's an age thing to it. The younger people are, the more social worlds they have for themselves that aren't necessarily reflective of their ethnicity," said lawyer Erikson Albrecht of North Hollywood, an Obama delegate at this week's Democratic National Convention.

  "I'm biracial, and I've always kind of lived my life not feeling particularly penned in anywhere, but having multiple circles of friends and multiple worlds that I live in.

  "But my identity, from an external point of view, I'm African-American to the majority of people in the world."

  But today, thousands of African-Americans living in upscale and middle-income communities in the West Valley may have more in common with their middle-class white neighbors than with poor blacks in South Los Angeles.

  According to a 2007 poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 57 percent of those surveyed said middle-class blacks are more like whites than they are like low-income blacks - and a majority of black Americans blame individual failings, not racism, for a lack of progress by lower-income African-Americans.

  "The values of the bottom and the top are different," said Pew President Andrew Kohut. "Blacks and whites have become more culturally integrated and, therefore, less-affluent blacks feel more estranged."

  Louis Stepter, transferred to Southern California by his employer in 1980, recalls that the only homes in the Valley shown to his family by their Realtor at the time were in Lake View Terrace.

  "It was the first house we ever bought, but we only lived there three years - we moved to Granada Hills and then to Porter Ranch," said Stepter, another Obama delegate at this week's Democratic convention.

  The youngest of eight children of a Mississippi Delta sharecropper, the 60-year-old Stepter epitomizes the socioeconomic shift of many middle-class African-Americans in the Valley.

  After a stint in the Air Force, he earned a business-economics degree at Delta State University and made a good life as a manufacturer's representative.

  His wife, Mary, a CSUN graduate, teaches science and math at Monroe High School. Their oldest son, Louis Adrian, 28, works at Anheuser-Busch. Younger son Darrell, 26, a West Point graduate, is between military tours to Iraq.

  "It's valid to say we're middle class, and a lot like others in the middle class," Stepter said. "Have I suffered discrimination here? ...

  "I didn't see much of it, but a lot of the time, you just let things roll off your shoulders - unless it's blatant, and I can't say I've experienced anything blatant."

  And today, old struggles centered around civil rights have shifted to more economic struggles for many low-income and young African-Americans, according to Stepter and others.

  The median income of blacks nationally declined an average of 1.3 percent a year from 2000 to 2006 after having risen an average of 2.2 percent a year in the 1990s, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

  In Los Angeles, recent tough economic times have led to the first postponement in two decades of the annual Black Business Expo and also threaten the future of the 23-year-old African Marketplace and Cultural Faire.

  "While understanding whether blacks made absolute gains is important for assessing the degree of racial progress in America," said Stoll, "understanding whether the racial divide is closing is equally important."

  A possible indication of at least some of that divide closing came at a recent baby shower for Woodland Hills residents Tony Johnson, an air traffic controller at Los Angeles International Airport, and his wife, Taylor Morgan-Johnson.

  Morgan-Johnson owns a legal services business, and the couple are expecting their first child in September. Johnson's mother, Gladys Johnson, a retired psychologist with the Los Angeles Unified School District, and her daughter, Pansi Johnson-Greer, an LAUSD psychologist, hosted the reception.

  "Our parents stressed family, love and education," said Gladys Johnson, who is Stepter's older sister and who has lived in the Northridge-Reseda area since 1974. "Those are powerful values for success in life."

    And such African-American suburban demographics will continue increasing, according to new Census Bureau studies that project that the nation's black population will grow from 14 percent of the total population this year to 65.7 million, or 15 percent, in the next four decades.

  "It may take another generation to put behind all that has divided America - all that has made two Americas," says Pichon, a father of three grown daughters by a previous marriage.

  He recalled that on one visit back to New Orleans he found changes he once could never have imagined.

  "There were museums where, back when I was growing up, if you were 'colored' - that's what they called us … you couldn't get into. Or if you could, it was only on a certain day of the week," he said, his voice trailing off.

  He then stopped to consider the obvious.

  "And now, there's a young African-American man this close to being president."