ATLANTA (Reuters) - In churches and bars, on the street and in their homes, African Americans celebrated Barack Obama’s historic presidential election victory on Tuesday with tears, horn blasts and shouts of joy.
In New York, people of all races streamed down from Broadway from Columbia University to Obama’s campaign office at 105th Street chanting “O-ba-ma.”
Obama supporters drove through the streets of downtown Washington for hours, honking their horns and cheering. A crowd of several hundred people gathered outside the gates of the White House in the drizzle, beating a drum.
In Atlanta, at civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s old church, Ebenezer Baptist, a deafening shout greeted the announcement of Obama’s victory and rolled on for minutes.
“On the night before King was assassinated, he said: ‘I have been to the mountain top, I have looked over and I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you,’” Pastor Raphael Warnock said.
“Tonight we have seized the promise of America.”
And in Chicago’s Grant Park, Rev. Jesse Jackson stood among a crowd of tens of thousands of Obama supporters with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Jackson, who twice sought the presidency himself, witnessed King’s assassination in Memphis 40 years ago.
For anyone with a sense of America’s history of slavery and the 19th century Civil War that tore the country apart, Obama’s win was a landmark.
Slavery and its successor, a brutal system of racial segregation that prevailed in the South until the 1960s, long tarnished the country’s pride in democratic ideals.
“And so it came to pass that on November 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man — Barack Hussein Obama — won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States.” wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
It was not just columnists seeing a moment to savor.
“This is definitely history in the making,” said elementary school teacher Sheneka Mayes, 32, in Atlanta. “This night will be burned into my memory and into the memory of my children.”
In a politically polarized country, many conservatives bemoaned the defeat of Republican John McCain but supporters of Democrat Obama delighted in his win, and many of them because he will be the first black president in U.S. history.
A big crowd held a candlelight vigil at King’s tomb in Atlanta, setting the election firmly in the context of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s to end racial segregation and win the right to vote for black Americans in the South.
“My grandfather was born a slave, so for me to see this happen means that there is hope for America, said Vanessa Ford, who works for Coca Cola.
Later, thousands packed Ebenezer Baptist, listening to speeches and thumping gospel music from a choir dressed in black, and watching two giant TV screens scrolling results.
For many, Obama’s win was all the sweeter because it brushed away worries that weeks of opinion polls giving him a lead against McCain might have overestimated his support among the country’s white majority.
“This is a great night. This is an unbelievable night,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was brutally beaten by police in Selma, Alabama, during a voting rights march in 1965.
“Tonight we can celebrate and thank God almighty. Martin Luther King must be looking down from the heavens and saying ‘hallelujah,’” Lewis said.
In New York, thousands of people were enthralled by a big screen set up on 125th street in Harlem, the unofficial capital of black America.
Cab drivers honked their horns, a city bus driver inched his bus through an impromptu block party and paused to high-five the throngs through his window.
In other East Coast cities including Boston and Miami, crowds of mostly younger revelers poured into the streets for impromptu celebrations.
In his home city of Chicago, Obama gave a victory speech to a crowd of more than 200,000. Many had waited hours to see him, sensing it would be a milestone in history.
For Dornise Pewitt, the election of a black man offered hope for her sons and daughter.
“Maybe people will be able to see them differently and look past the color of their skin,” she said.
Additional reporting by Angela Moore and Chris Michaud in New York, Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, Sue Pleming in Chicago, editing by Frances Kerry