WASHINGTON, November 5 – Barack Obama’s election as America’s first black president is a moment of healing for his country’s lingering racial divides, and one many civil rights icons did not think they would live to see.
The Illinois senator will become the 44th president of the United States and forever consign to history the political truism, often heard during the epic 2008 campaign, that America was not ready to elect a black president.
His election on Tuesday, reached after uniting African-American voters and a wide coalition of other races, will bring the country one step closer to Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality laid out 45 years ago.
In his acceptance speech Obama praised the strength of US democracy. "It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled — Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America," he said.
In his speech Obama also invoked Abraham Lincoln, one of the most revered US presidents, the leader who emancipated the slaves during the 1861-1865 US civil war and an Obama icon.
"As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies, but friends, though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.’ And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too," Obama said.
Within living memory of institutionalized racism, and the struggle of African Americans for social and political emancipation, Obama will be inaugurated on January 20th 2009.
His presidency will be closely watched to see whether it grants tangible future benefits to the African American community, especially in impoverished inner cities, and the still open racial wounds in US society.
"I must tell you, I feel very grateful that I am still here during this unbelieveable historic moment in our country," said John Lewis, a revered congressman and footsoldier and leader of the bitter civil rights crusade.
"This is a day of Thanksgiving, a night of celebration, I just don’t know how to express myself," Lewis, who was beaten by a white mob in Alabama in 1961, said on MSNBC.
"It is unbelievable that we have come such a distance in such a short time, to see a young African American man elected president of the United States."
"We are prepared to create a truly multiracial democratic society."
Another leader of the civil rights generation, former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, stood waiting for Obama’s victory speech with tears streaming down his face.
Jackson was thinking of his own history, including being with civil rights prophet Martin Luther King when he was shot dead.
"I didn’t know when but I always thought it was possible," he told AFP in Grant Park, Chicago.
Obama’s vanquished opponent Republican John McCain immediately spoke of the racial significance of Obama’s achievement as he gave his concession speech.
"This is an historic election. I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans," he said.
"Though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation, and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.
"Let there be no reason now. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on earth."
Political analysis on Obama’s historic election will come later, but it is clear that the fears of some analysts that racial discrimination and bigotry would thwart Obama’s bid to win were unfounded.
He won the swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio which he earlier lost in the Democratic primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, confounding skeptics who said that he could not win over white, working class voters.
Despite the racial significance of his victory, Obama had been careful not to run as a "black candidate" and always stressed that if he lost the presidency, it would not be because of his race.
He was able to find a way of talking about race that was different from the previous generation that had fought the civil rights battles.
And as the son of a Kenyan man and a white mother from Kansas, who grew up mostly in Hawaii and off the US mainland, he did not exhibit the scars of historic racial discrimination.
That may be the secret of his cross-racial political appeal.