'I never thought we'd see this day,' proud African Americans see their dream fulfilled

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The Independent US

The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States shatters the highest political barrier in the land for African Americans and marks a history-defining triumph for a civil rights movement born in the churches of the South half a century ago.

And by showing that white Americans in many parts of the country are willing in huge numbers to embrace a candidate with a different racial background, the results promise to redefine race relations in the US, although perhaps in unpredictable ways.

Liberated from a campaign strategy that shied away from explicitly discussing race, President-elect Obama acknowledged the historic significance in his victory speech.

Even his Republican opponents expressed pride at seeing the first African American president. John McCain referred on the night to "the special significance it has for African Americans and the special pride that must be theirs tonight" and George Bush also noted this as a defining moment in the civil rights movement. "Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day. This moment is especially uplifting for a generation of Americans who witnessed the struggle for civil rights with their own eyes – and four decades later see their dream fulfilled."

The election of Mr Obama as the 44th president of the US comes 44 years after a Democrat predecessor, Lyndon B Johnson, signed the ground-breaking Civil Rights Act that swept away the Jim Crow laws that segregated the South, forcing black people to attend separate schools, drink from separate water fountains and give up their bus seats to white passengers.

Many of the 2,000 people who crammed into the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta to watch the results as they came in and to see history unfold could remember the indignities of that earlier age, when they were barred from public office and the notion of an African American president was not even a dream.

Others were young families who brought children to witness a historic moment and to pay homage to the civil rights leaders who had gone before. They had come to this place because of its links to Martin Luther King, who worshipped here as a child, who preached here and who is buried in a tomb across from the church, and held a candelight procession to give thanks.

Later, at the victory rally in Chicago's Grant Park, the civil rights campaigner the Rev Jesse Jackson, whose own bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s never broke out beyond racial lines, was in tears as TV networks called the election for Mr Obama. One man held up a sign: "We have overcome."

"I feel like I want to pinch myself," Cheryl Munson, 54, said outside the Ebenezer church. "I could have watched on TV, but I wanted to come here for [my mother], and for her mother, and for all their mothers that I didn't know."

Rhonda Diop carried a photo of her grandmother, who died last year, before there was even a sense that Mr Obama could achieve an improbable dream. "I'm from Louisiana," said Mrs Diop. "I was born in 1961. I rode at the back of the bus. I remember my mother getting up when she was pregnant, I just thought she wanted to get up. It hasn't been that long."

Cedric Walters, a sheriff's officer, who oversaw the poll at John Hope Elementary School, said that just six months ago he thought "they would never allow Obama to be president". Now he hopes that having a black first family will help to shift attitudes and lift stereotypes. "African Americans are historically portrayed as thugs, as gangsters, as threatening, or any number of adjectives you can think of. This might change that perception."

But Mrs Diop warned that the election hardly proved that racism had been licked in the US, that intolerances would fall away, or that race would not continue be a defining part of one's life. Inequities that, as Mr Obama acknowledged in his reluctant speech on race during the primaries, go back to the legacy of slavery will not be wiped out overnight. "No matter who wins, I'm still going to be a black woman in America," she said.

And a glance at polling data from the South suggests that, here at least, Mr Obama failed to build the wider electoral coalition that he managed further north, where white workers and homeowners suffer an economic pain that has brought their interests into line with those of poorer blacks.

For those at the Democratic victory party in Atlanta on Tuesday, with its multiracial conga snaking through the dancefloor like a liberal utopian dream, it may take a while to shake the euphoria. But Merle Black, a professor of politics and government at Emory University, said that votes remained racially polarised in the Deep South, where the Democratic party is heavily African American in its support, and may become more so after the big drives in black communities to get people to vote. Only 23 per cent of white voters supported Obama in Georgia, Professor Black said.

The future for race relations is uncertain; neither candidate addressed issues such as affirmative action or how to tackle the de facto segregation of many schools.

"Democrat presidents have not done anything on these issues precisely because they are so controversial that they tore up the old Democrat coalition," he said. Mr Obama's presidency was a moment for celebration for the black community, but not necessarily a moment to hope for the political change many had long sought.