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A glimpse of the young Obama in action

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  • A random meeting gives sneak preview of a future presidential candidate
  • Youthful Obama's leadership evident at stormy political protest
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By John Blake
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. John Blake writes of his encounter with a young politician.

A young Barack Obama, left, joins fellow Chicago community activists for this snapshot in the mid-1980s.

(CNN) -- In 1987, I got a sneak preview of one of the most unlikely political stories of our time. It would take me nearly 20 years to figure out that I had stumbled upon a slice of American history.

I was a summer intern in Illinois at the Chicago Tribune newspaper. An editor dispatched me to City Hall to cover a demonstration. When I arrived, I found a group of angry African-American women shouting at a group of white city officials in a crowded waiting room.

I tried to talk to some of the women, but it was difficult to pry any of them away from the demonstration because they were so angry. Some of the women grew so agitated that they started to shove the flustered city officials and yell in their faces.

Now there was nothing unusual about this scene. Chicago has long been a tough political town and that certainly was the case when I arrived there in the mid-1980s. Chicagoans had elected Harold Washington as the city's first black mayor four years earlier, but racial tensions were still simmering.

The city had recently been dubbed "Beirut on the Lake" because of the constant clashes between Washington and the city's white political establishment. I still remember how stunned I was when I watched a race riot erupt on television the previous summer when black demonstrators tried to enter a public park in a white, working-class neighborhood. People even warned me not to venture into certain white neighborhoods after dark.

So, the ugly demonstration at City Hall didn't surprise me. This was Chicago. But then something unusual took place.

As the City Hall demonstration threatened to veer out of control, a lanky man suddenly walked up to the women protesters. He appeared to be in his mid-20s, and he wore a short afro and overalls.

The women's shouts trailed off when they saw him. The young man had an annoyed look on his face and, motioning with his index finger, he summoned the women to a corner in the room. They formed a circle around him, some still mumbling in anger.

"What did we come here for?" he asked them.

They gave an answer in unison.

He asked another question and they gave another collective answer.

As the man posed his questions, the anger of the women subsided. It seemed like this was an exercise that they had all rehearsed beforehand to keep the women's anger in check.

The women then took a collective breath, pivoted and resumed their demonstration, with the young man leading the way this time. The entire episode didn't last more than five minutes.

That moment, for whatever reason, never left me. It's not as if the man said anything clever or inspiring. I actually don't remember anything he said after his first question.

How, I wondered, could these tough, angry women listen with such deference to someone who was so much younger and seemed so different?

Despite his humble appearance, he didn't look like he came from the same world as they did. I could tell by his diction that he was well educated. And I didn't see any evidence of hard living in his smooth, honey-colored face. He looked like a kid standing next to these angry women with their hardened faces.

Yet these women hung on his words like quiet schoolchildren listening to their teacher.

I left the demonstration with no story but with this thought. I felt sorry for the guy. His protest was doomed to fail and no one would probably hear of him. Poor people don't evoke too much sympathy. I thought he could do a lot more with his life if he did something else.

Fast-forward to 2004. That's when I started to hear about a young politician coming out of Chicago. Then I heard about a famous speech the same politician gave that year, but I missed the speech on television. Three years later, I heard that the same guy was running for president and someone says he's a former community organizer from Chicago. Photo See photos of Obama »

Chicago? Community organizer? No. Could it be? I looked up the politician's name on Google and I did a little math. Then I called up his picture on the Internet and I recognized his face. Test your knowledge of the '08 candidates »

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I didn't know his name when I saw him leading that demonstration 20 years ago, but now I knew.

His name was Barack Obama.

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