African-Americans Glimpse 'Promised Land'

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

BySusan Donaldson James and Justin Grant
November 04, 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.

  • PHOTOS: Black History in America
  • Obama as a Role Model: Students, Educators Share Excitement

    "If Obama can become president, there is nothing else that we cannot be," Jackson said.

    The Harlem event, sponsored by the New York Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel and the Martin Luther King Jr. Democrats, spilled over into streets that bustled with vendors hawking Obama paraphernalia, among the usual herbal oils, bootleg CDs and incense.

    When Florida and North Carolina looked like they were headed into the blue zone, patrons at the Lenox Lounge, a smooth jazz joint and neighborhood hangout filled to the gills broke out in cheers and applause.

    At Harlem's landmark restaurant Sylvia's, Mark Ali, 42, a hip-hop producer, said Obama gives hope to children. "My ancestors are singing in heaven," he said.

    Jeff Mann, 51, a construction worker, said, "You can't be anything but joyful. Obama is going to change the world."

    Outside the restaurant, Obama supporters carved giant, individual ice sculptures of the letters spelling out Obama's name.

    Old Guard activists, who for the most part supported Sen. Hillary Clinton in her run for the Democratic primary, also rejoiced in the moment.

    David Dinkins, who served as New York City's first black mayor, from 1990 to 1993, acknowledged other African Americans who had laid the groundwork for Obama's presidency. "Everybody stands on everybody else's shoulders," he told ABC News.

    "Blacks are swelling with pride," he said of the Harlem event, where he joined other notables like singer Harry Belafonte and Lynn Whitfield.

    Dinkins said he remembers a quite different era for blacks in America.

    "I am a child of the Depression, in the Marine Corps in 1945 stationed in the South," Dinkins, 81 and now a professor at Columbia University, said. "I know how it was when black soldiers and Marines were treated less well than German prisoners of war. These were the days of white and colored water fountains."

    Earlier in the day, lines wrapped around polling stations where what was expected to be a record number of African-American voters -- mirroring record numbers in all demographic groups around the nation -- cast their ballots.

    Many, like Atlanta's Andrew Young, who served as King's ally in demonstrations in Selma, Ala., and Florida in the 1960s, said the election has "psychological" implications for black Americans.

    "The significance of this election is global and sends a message around the world that America really does believe in democracy and that we practice the values we preach," said Young, who also served as mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter.

    "It's natural for Obama," said Young. "He is African he went to school in Indonesia. It forced him be exceptional in his humility and his judgment. His childhood gave him a kind of cultural DNA to hear and understand people from all over the world."

    But can Obama deliver Americans, in the midst of two foreign wars and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, to the reality of the Promised Land?

    "We may have arrived, but there is work to be done," said Jackson, who sees the civil rights movement is an "unbroken continuum."

    "We are now free, but there are still structural inequalities," he said.

    Indeed, African-Americans are overrepresented in American prisons, suffer higher infant mortality rates and health issues. The achievement gap between blacks and white in education still exists and from the negative campaign tactics, many Americans believe racism is still alive.

    "We celebrate, but there is unfinished business," Jackson said.

    Isaac Farris, who played with "Uncle Martin Luther" as a 7-year-old, agrees.

    "This is not the fulfillment of the dream," said Farris, who is director of the King Center in Atlanta. "It's huge, though, and we are three-fourths of the way there. The reality is that it can't be -- too many people, both black and white, vote based on race. That was not my uncle's dream."

    "We still haven't gotten there yet because this well-meaning guy felt in some instances he had to distance himself from his blackness," Farris told ABCNews before Election Day. "But he cannot be a black president and he cannot be a white president. He must be an American president. He should be looking at how I can help the oppressed and the disadvantaged."

    Still, Farris said, "Just to have a guy there who looks like me, my child or my grand child. That sends a huge message."

    "Other than the March on Washington that set up the Civil Rights Act, I cannot think of a movement that surpasses this," he said. "Spiritually, this is a serious moment, not the watershed moment of the '60s, but the emotional high is right up there with that."

    But his mother, Christine King Farris, knows her brother would have been "pleased" by Obama's crowning glory.

    "God granted this because of the struggles and hard work that brought us to this place," she said. "We are accepted as full-fledged citizens of this country."

    Martin Luther King surely would have seen the work ahead. And, not being a boastful type, he might turn to Obama and recall one of his own father's favorite expressions, "Don't be chesty."

    Brad Martin in ABC News Research contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events