Lifted voices and tears of joy complete a momentous day for African-Americans

Thu, Nov 6, 2008, 00:00

BLACK AMERICA:Spontaneous singing and street parties erupt in the US capital, writes Mary Fitzgeraldin Washington DC

MINUTES AFTER TV screens flashed with the news that Barack Obama had made history to become the first black president of the United States, there was a brief hush in the packed Blackburn auditorium of Howard University, a Washington DC institution often described as the "black Harvard".

As hundreds of African- American students linked arms, the opening words of Lift Every Voice and Sing, a refrain regarded as the black national anthem, begin to float above a sea of raised fists. "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/ Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us," the students sang with gusto, many with tears rolling down their cheeks. They followed up with the song most associated with the civil rights movement, We Shall Overcome, swaying in time with its gentle rhythms.

For most of those studying at this historically black university, located in the Shaw/U-Street district, an area long considered the beating heart of Washington DC's African-American community, it was the first election they had ever voted in.

"I never thought anything like this would happen, not while I was alive at least," said Erin Thurston (20), a biology major whose sense of victory was all the sweeter for the fact her home state of Florida rowed behind Obama. "This gives us hope. We're going to have a president who understands us and inspires us." Her friend Crystal Davidson agreed. "It's hard to believe we have a black president so soon after the civil rights movement," she said. "The effect this will have on African-Americans will be momentous. It will make us more comfortable going out into the world and proving what we can do. Obama has set a precedent."

James Glenn (18), from Dallas, blinked back tears. "Tonight is very emotional for me. For someone like me, coming from a single-parent home and what might not be the best neighbourhood, Obama's story is an inspiration," he said.

"This victory is for my future children and grandchildren. When white America and the rest of world see Obama, hopefully they will understand what we have been telling them all along - that we can do it."

James's friend Rauni Shirley embraced him as the crowd began to chant the Obama campaign's rallying cry - Yes, We Can.

"America has come such a long way tonight. This shows us we can accomplish anything when we put our minds to it," she said.

Outside, students spilled onto the university's manicured lawns, dancing, singing and high-fiving each other. "O-Ba-Ma" some yelled. "Yes, We Did," shouted others. "My president is a black man," announced one woman to no one in particular as she walked past. Gresham Harkless (21), an English major from Virginia, relished the symbolism of Obama's victory in his home state, once the capital of the old Confederacy, and where the candidate ended his campaign on Monday with a massive rally in Manassas, near the site of one of the epic battles of the Civil War. "To have someone who looks like me and shares the same history as me reach the highest office in the US is just incredible," he said.

"Obama came up from nothing to become president.

That's the American dream and tonight it's more of a reality than ever before."

A few minutes away, a huge spontaneous street party erupted on U Street, the historic corridor once known as the "black Broadway" until it was destroyed in the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King. The area has undergone a renaissance in recent years, with jazz venues such as the Lincoln Theatre and Bohemian Caverns restored to their former glory. As young African-Americans, whites, Asians, and Hispanics took to the streets to celebrate together, the thoughts of many older residents turned to King and memories of civil rights struggles past.

"If only he were here to witness this and see a black man in the White House," smiled pensioner Rosetta Lewis, still wearing her "I voted" sticker. "I never thought I would see the day."

King's 81-year-old sister, Christine King Farris, said Obama's speech took her back to King's last address in Memphis.

"He said, 'I may not get there with you,' but we - not some Americans, but all Americans - will get to the Promised Land'."

The Rev Jesse Jackson, who was pictured crying on Tuesday night, argued that Obama's victory went beyond symbolism.

"For blacks who voted for Obama, this is reconciliation, for whites, it is redemption," said Jackson, who worked with King and later ran two unsuccessful presidential campaigns.

Freeman A Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a veteran of the civil rights movement, reflected on how far America had come. "This is a very proud moment," he said. "All the struggles of the civil rights movement have led to the victory we see today. This is something many of us never thought we would see in our lifetimes. Obama is a symbol of hope for everyone."