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.

"This was what the civil rights movement was about — that a candidate would be given a fair shot, judged on his ability, not his color," said Carolyn Brown Henderson, 58. "Barack did not allow race to define his candidacy."

In Jackson, Miss., Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, said he "shed tears thinking about how far we had come; thinking about our brother who gave his life for this." Medgar Evers was shot to death in 1963 because of his civil rights work.

"Like most black Americans, we're just shocked beyond words that we have a black man to lead our country," Charles Evers said. "Forty-five years ago we couldn't even vote in Mississippi, and now we have a black president."

'Dawn of a new day'

In Birmingham, Ala., Carolyn McKinstry recalled four girlfriends killed 45 years ago in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, an atrocity that spurred civil rights legislation.

She was 14 and had walked upstairs to the sanctuary when the bomb exploded in the bathroom downstairs.

"It's the dawn of a new day," she said. "Some people think I'm bitter because I lost my friends. But all of us must be willing to let the past be the past."

Some civil rights veterans were giddy with delight.

"Who went to bed last night?" asked Franklin McCain, who in 1960 was one of four black college students who staged the first sit-in demonstration at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. "I'm on a natural high this morning. I don't know how long I'll be here, but I'll cherish it forever."

In Little Rock, Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of nine black students who integrated Central High School there in 1957, said Obama's election helped her understand that experience in a new way.

"This is a consciousness shift — things are never gonna go back. They're never gonna be the same again. I realize it was the same back in '57. Sometimes it takes you 51 years to understand."

A day of high emotions

Emotions ran deep at landmarks of the USA's racial history:

•Washington, D.C.: Rufus Horton was at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 for the March on Washington and heard King deliver his indelible "I Have a Dream" speech. Forty-five years later, at age 64, Horton stood there again Wednesday, absorbing the election results.

Horton, a retiree who lives in Landover, Md., called old friends with whom he was involved in the civil rights movement.

Wednesday morning, he drove to the memorial: "I went up the stairs and meditated for a while, re-read Lincoln speeches. I reflected on all I've seen from 1963 to 2008."

On the other side of the National Mall, about 20 people stood in front of scores of front pages of national and international newspapers displayed at the entrance of the Newseum, a journalism museum.

Kendrick Faison, a 28-year-old black man, snapped photos of the papers to post on his Facebook and My Space pages. "This is a very deep moment. It reflects what my grandmother and my great-grandmother didn't have the opportunity to see."

•Selma, Ala.: Robert Lawrence, 73, a retired pipefitter, wore an "I Voted" sticker on his hat. "What has happened really hasn't hit me yet," he said. "But I think we will be in better shape as a country. (Obama) winning shows we've come a long ways since what happened on that bridge."

That bridge was the Edmund Pettus. There, on a Sunday in March 1965, about 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state troopers and county sheriff's deputies, who tear gassed and pummeled them with clubs. Scenes of the day, broadcast around the world, helped inspire Congress' passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Debra Reeves-Howard, 47, of Selma, a job developer for the Selma Career Center, went to the bridge Wednesday and considered both the past and future.

"In 1968 Robert Kennedy said that in 40 years we could have a black president," she said. "I've been ready for a black president since then. I had to believe that we would get there some day. I think Obama is a different caliber of person, you can see it in his face. You can see the kind of change he wants to bring to the country."

•Detroit: The West Side corner where the nation's worst race riot began in 1967 has nothing to mark the 43 people who were killed. There's only a vacant lot, several abandoned store fronts, and a small park where a man slept on a bench Wednesday. Many of the area's brick homes had an Obama sign on the lawn.

Miiko Baldwin, 26, a single mother of two and criminal justice student, basked in Obama's victory. She also sported an "I voted" sticker on her jacket — "to let people know I helped contribute to getting my man in office."

For all the celebration, however, African Americans in Detroit brought a hefty dose of realism to Obama's chances of making the great changes he promised on the campaign trail.

In a city where one-third of the population lives at or below the poverty level, Detroiters such as Lynda Reynolds, 43, and Joe Wooten, 33, said their city's problems, along with the nation's current economic crisis, took a long time to develop and will take a long time to overcome.

"It's not like we wake up in the morning and suddenly things are better," said Reynolds, a social worker.

•Chicago: The old brick rectory where Obama worked as a community organizer in the 1980s is vacant, but memories of his time there echoed Wednesday in the Roseland section. The drugstore was sold out of newspapers by 7:30 a.m.

"The whole neighborhood is ecstatic," said Mary Young, 52, a preschool teacher. "I feel like he's my brother."

Young said she wept when Obama won, but on Wednesday she focused on what the president-elect might do.

"I'm hoping and praying that we'll have more jobs open," she said. "I'm hoping and praying that mothers will be able to send their children to college. I'm hoping and praying the gangs will even get off the streets."

•Atlanta: At the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said he was hardly able to believe that more than 40 years after he was left beaten and bloody on the Pettus bridge, he had voted for a victorious Obama.

"It is a night of thanksgiving," Lewis said.

For all its spiritual uplift, Obama's victory did not change some sobering facts.

Fewer than 4% of America's elected officials are black, and the vast majority of them represent districts that are predominantly non-white. One-quarter of blacks are poor, compared with about 8% of whites.

Obama's win reflected profound demographic changes in the USA.

Minorities now account for about one-third of the population; in a few decades the United States is expected to become "majority-minority," because no racial group — including non-Hispanic whites — will be more than 50% of the population.

Given its problems, "the nation is walking on eggshells right now," said Kenneth Martin, 40, a white airline pilot from Denver visiting the Lincoln Memorial.

Even so, Obama's election has provided a reason for optimism.

David Brown, 20, a pre-med student at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said Obama responded to the financial crisis "pretty calmly and coolly, and I'm pretty sure that's how he'll be as president. He's not going to try to do everything himself. He'll get good people on his team."

Tijuane McLittle, 31, a Detroit hair salon owner, agreed. "I hope that this evokes a new spirit in urban America," McLittle said. "I hope it brings out the Obama in everyone. Now that we have a black president, that's fine and dandy. But black people need to step up to the plate or else Barack Obama being president is in vain."

Changing corporate culture

In Denver, Herman Malone, 61, took the day off from running RMES Communication, a telecommunications firm that provides phone, Internet and other services to the Denver airport. Malone, former chairman of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, predicted major changes in corporate America because of Obama's victory.

"The most powerful position in the country is headed by an African-American," he said. "These CEOs are not stupid. They're going to say, 'I've got to get some African Americans on my board, some women, some minorities.' This is a major shift."

There were worries, however. The Rev. Joe Ellwanger, 75, said he asked God to "protect our president-to-be — recognizing there are kooks out there."

Ellwanger knows. In 1963 he was one of the few white, pro-civil rights pastors in Birmingham when the Sixteenth Street church was bombed. He spoke at the funeral of one of the slain girls.

On Wednesday, he was in LaCrosse, Wis., working as a community organizer.

Ellwanger said the energy and organization that characterized the candidate's campaign must carry over to the new president's administration: "Grass-roots organizing must be the wind in Obama's sail now. Without it, he won't have the political support he needs.'