African-Americans Glimpse 'Promised Land'

African-Americans weep and cheer as Barack Obama wins, moves toward MLK's dream.

ByABC News
November 4, 2008, 12:10 PM

Nov. 4, 2008— -- At once weeping and jubilant, African-Americans glimpsed the Promised Land tonight, 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., as Barack Obama won the election as the first black American president.

"I feel like 100 pounds are off my shoulders right now," said Preston Johnson, a 22-year-old African-American among the thousands of multi-ethnic Obama supporters gathered tonight in Harlem. "I feel the change right this minute."

Nearby, Tejahn Rahman, 25, said an Obama presidency means that "the younger generation sees they can do better than what we've done. I've got chills down my spine."

At 47, Obama is too young to have borne the battle scars of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but he was the beneficiary of all its prizes: the Voting Rights Act, legal acceptance of interracial marriage and affirmative action, among them.

"Change takes time, and to come to this place in time is a sign," King's 81-year-old sister, Christine King Farris, told from her office at Spelman College, where she is a professor.

"This takes me back to my brother's last speech in Memphis," she said. "He said, 'I may not get there with you,' but we -- not some Americans, but all Americans -- will get to the Promised Land."

Amid dancing, confetti and champagne toasts, thousands of supporters lined 125th Street in historic Harlem in New York City -- the iconic heart of black America and home to early civil rights activists Marcus Garvey, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and black separatist Malcolm X, who was assassinated here in 1965.

The event, sandwiched between the Apollo Theater, where blues and jazz greats once got their start, and the big-box stores like H&M that have symbolized Harlem's economic renaissance, drew an estimated 8,000, according to security officials.

On a stage lined with American flags, guitarist GQ belted out a rendition of Marvin Gaye's, "What's Going On?" Throngs of African-Americans, surrounded by tourists and European and American news teams, answered, "Obama!"

But Obama's victory is more than symbolism, according to Rainbow Coalition director the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke to by phone from Chicago on Election Day.

"For blacks who voted for Obama, this is reconciliation, for whites, it is redemption," said Jackson, who worked side-by-side with King and later ran unsuccessful presidential campaigns as a Democrat in 1984 and 1988.

Obama's ascendancy was accomplished by the civil rights movement, Jackson said. "That is the force that made his victory possible," he added. "His accomplishment came from the pain of martyrs."

Perhaps a kind of poetic justice, but Kansas, where Obama was partly raised, was also where the pivotal Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education desegregated education in 1954.