For many, a sense that a new era is here

The day was a long time coming, and when Wednesday finally dawned, a lot of bleary-eyed, partied-out Americans had to pinch themselves: They had an African-American president-elect.

It was no dream, but many felt as if they were living one.

"This was Dr. King's dream — to have someone in the black community to represent us, and bring the races together," said Taylor Rogers, 82, a retired Memphis sanitation worker who in 1968 heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak the night before he was killed.

It was a day when the ghosts of the civil rights struggle, of Little Rock and Birmingham and Greensboro, seemed abroad in the land as Barack Obama's election took hold. Memories proud (King's March on Washington, Mississippi's Freedom Summer) and shameful (Detroit's riots, Selma's "Bloody Sunday") surged back.

Everywhere on the morning after, people voiced astonishment at the election's outcome, even though it had seemed likely for weeks. "Never in my lifetime" was an exclamation from coast to coast.

Suddenly, much of a nation facing two wars, a sinking economy, a warming planet, a troubled health care system and significant energy needs was again optimistic and upbeat.

Erika Johnson, 36, who took photos with three friends holding Obama signs in front of the Spirit of Detroit statue, said Obama would reshape America's international image, which she said has made the USA "a laughingstock." "I have hope now for our country," she said.

In Harlem, Kris Martinez, a 21-year-old who voted for the first time, called Obama's election "the proudest moment of my life, and it had nothing to do with me, except I voted. … It's a new day for the world, not just for America."

Still, as the meaning of what poet Walt Whitman once called "America's choosing day" began to sink in, euphoria gave way to reflection and, sometimes, trepidation.

In Detroit, Terry Hudson, 30, an aspiring rapper who calls himself Re-Up, said Obama would be held to a higher standard than previous presidents because of his race. He worried that white America would give Obama little room for error: "I see it coming. They'll want him to change everything overnight and they'll hold it against him if he doesn't."

Scholars said it was the first time any nation with a white majority had elected a non-white head of state. "The old saw that anyone in America can become president looks a lot truer today," said Bruce Schulman, a Boston University historian.

"This is the only place in the world this could happen," said film director Spike Lee, long a critic of racial bias in this country.

For a day, pride in progress trumped even partisanship. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked about Obama, her eyes glistened. She called the election of Obama — who during the campaign had excoriated Rice's policies — "an extraordinary step forward."

When he spoke about Obama, Colin Powell's voice cracked. Rice's predecessor and the nation's first black secretary of State, Powell served under President Bush, but last month endorsed Obama over Republican Sen. John McCain. "He has run a campaign that is inclusive," Powell said of Obama. "It's very emotional."

In Kansas, the daughter of a man whose lawsuit against a school board led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing "separate but equal" schools and other public accommodations said she wished her father had lived to see the day.

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