Friday, November 07, 2008

In The Shadow Of King: Memphians React To Obama's Historic Victory...

‘O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!’

During the victory celebration at the National Civil Rights Museum, percussionist Ekpe Lee tapped on his dijembe drum while leading approximately 50 Obama supporters in a chant of “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” (Photos by Wiley Henry)

Beverly Robertson, executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum, could no longer contain herself during the Barack Obama victory celebration being held at the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 40 years ago.

“This is historic and particularly historic for us (African Americans),” she said, “because this is the site where Dr. King was killed and the site that chronicles so much of American history. Barack, in many ways, is the manifestation of King’s dream.”

No one released balloons or tossed confetti. Instead, the crowd danced, shouted and waved their hands in sheer excitement following the announcement that Obama was now the president-elect.

Hoisting an Obama sign, this woman was emotional after hearing that the Illinois senator had clinched the presidency.

Mary Alice Gandy, who voted for the first time at 106, is surrounded by her admirers at The Peabody to witness the election of America’s first African-American president.

Barely able to speak, NAACP executive director Johnnie Turner finally said, “This is our time.” She is surrounded by Beverly Robertson (left), executive director of the museum; Rev. Dwight Montgomery, president of SCLC; Joe Crittenden, SCLC historian, Memphis chapter; Ezekiel Bell, president emeritis, Memphis chapter; and Johnnie Williams, SCLC chairman of the board.

The celebration at The Peabody wasn’t complete without a little soul singing.
On Tuesday, after a long and contentious race for the presidency, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama beat Republican Sen. John McCain to become the 44th president of the United States and the nation’s first African American chief executive.

News of his victory spread quickly across the country and around the globe after he amassed the 270 electoral votes he needed to secure the presidency before midnight.

After the announcement, a rainbow coalition gathered outdoors in major cities, including Chicago and New York, to marvel at his triumph. Many, including civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of State Colin Powell shed tears as they watched history unfold. Voters, old and young, told reporters, “I never thought I would live to see this day.”

The network electoral counts and their projections differed on Wednesday but all agreed Obama had 270 electoral votes. After calling Missouri for McCain, MSNBC projected that Obama had 349 electoral votes and McCain had 173. With 97 percent of the vote counted, MSNBC said Obama led the popular vote 52 percent (63,685,576 votes) to 46 percent (56,280,668 votes).

Inside the victory celebration in Memphis, the noise level was high and percussionist Ekpe Lee, dressed in African garb, was moved to go to his car to get his dijembe drum. With rapid hand movement, Lee tapped a rhythmic beat while others chanted “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!”

“We’ve all been vindicated and so have our mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers,” said Robertson. “They fought, struggled, bled and died so that life could be immeasurably different for all of us.”

Struggling to find the right words, Johnnie Turner, executive director of the Memphis chapter NAACP, said, “This is our time. We have been faithful to Him and He has been faithful to us.”

Turner said she felt like giving a sermon, but left that to Rev. Dwight Montgomery, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. With their hands clasped in prayer, Montgomery said, “I believe we need to thank God. It is God who brought us this far.”

At The Peabody hotel, more than 1,500 revelers filled the room that the Shelby County Democratic Party had reserved for a late evening celebration. They waited for Obama to clinch the presidency and for history to unfold.

“It’s very monumental,” said Mike Walls of Memphis Print Network, who kept his eyes on the big-screen TV. “I’m so excited because it’s the first African American that’s ever been a serious candidate to win the presidency of the United States.”

Obama is an electric candidate, he said. “I’m 44 years old. I was born in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I could never imagine seeing a black president.”

Shawn Saunders wasn’t in the world when segregation and racial strife were commonplace in the ‘60s. What he knows about that era has opened his eyes to a world now on the precipice of change.

“I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., which was highly segregated,” said Saunders, 36. “I moved to Memphis, and over the years I’ve seen change. And we’ve progressed as a people.”

Obama’s victory is a way for people to get involved, he said, and for them to “pick up the mantle from the last Civil Rights Movement.”

Corey G. Maclin, president/CEO of Corey Maclin Associates, used the word “magnificent” to describe Obama’s 21-month journey from the Senate to the White House. Maclin didn’t think he could win, at first. But the polls kept telling a different story.

“It’s got to go down in history as one of the greatest victories ever and one of the greatest days in American history,” said Maclin. “It’s almost unheard of and certainly unthought of. I don’t think anybody saw it coming for at least the last 90 days or so.”

Before the polls closed, Keith Norman, chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, canvassed at least two dozens precincts to check on turnout.

“We’ve seen by the numbers of early votes that continued to pour in that people were determine to cast their vote for change,” said Norman. “I saw young people. I saw hope.”

The election, he said, was strategic and very well planned. “This will be an election that will be studied in the fields of political science, I believe, and in the areas of campaigning and national elections for years to come.”

Carol Chumney said Obama’s victory is a signal that America is ready to change. “The fact that so many people in this country were able to look at the candidates and vote for the one they thought could do the best job, and not let race get in the way, says so much about our country,” said Chumney, a former state legislator and former city council woman.

“It’s a new opportunity, a new day,” she said. “And it sends a message to people everywhere, to young kids, that no matter who you are, you might be president of the United States someday.”

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