By Michael Levenson
Sixty-six-year-old Jake Coakley picked cotton as a boy in Beaufort, S.C., just like his father and grandfather before him. So today, as he stood amid a throng of people hugging, high-fiving, and even weeping outside a Roxbury polling place, he wanted to underscore the significance of the day.
“This,” he said to a little boy, patting his head and staring deeply into his eyes, “is history.”
At another polling station blocks away, Charles Robinson recalled the racial epithets shouted at him as a student at South Boston High School during the busing crisis of the 1970s.
In St. Petersburg, Fla., Ron Dock spoke of the day he learned that Martin Luther King was shot. Dock was 18, he said, crouching in a rice paddy in Vietnam, preparing for a firefight.
In Alexandria, Va., 83-year-old Flossie Parks recalled turning 21 and being forced to pay a $3 poll tax for the right to vote.
Millions of black voters across the country turned out hoping to elect Barack Obama the first African-American president, and as they did, they reflected not just on the course of a historic campaign, but on the history of a nation. From Florida to Arizona, Chicago to Boston, African-Americans said they were writing a new chapter in a progression that began long before Obama burst onto the scene at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The moment was tinged with poignancy at the prices paid by generations before them who could have never imagined a black man winning the highest office in the land.
“At the time when I came up, I couldn’t see beyond the cotton fields,” Coakley said. “There wasn’t anybody in my life I could look at who could see beyond the cotton fields. And to see this man come the way that he's come, through all the struggle and all the marching and all the hanging and all the lynching and everything that was done in this country, whatever doubts that I have, whatever I feel within me, this is the best country on the face of this earth. And we’re not just talking about it. We’re living it.”
In Boston, as elsewhere in the country, the march to the polls by black voters began early. Young and old streamed into voting booths at churches, schools and apartment buildings, with walkers and canes, baby strollers and iPods. At 9 a.m. in Hyde Park, the line outside the Elihu Greenwood Elementary School stretched around the building. Schoolchildren in a bus peered out the window, chanting, “Obama! Obama!” At the Lewis Middle School in Roxbury, Governor Deval Patrick, stopping by after voting in Milton, remarked to one black voter, "Proud day, isn't it?"
"It's a beautiful day!" the voter replied.
Patrick, the second African-American governor elected since Reconstruction, pointed to his chest. "I can tell you personally that I feel full," he said. Hours later, he was in Chicago for Obama's election night rally. "I'm going early so I can go to my old neighborhood and sit on the stoop for a while and just feel this," he said.
As early results started pouring in late in the day, some dared to begin to celebrate and to reflect on the possiblity of a black man ascending to the highest office in the country -- the same country that less than a lifetime ago denied blacks the right to vote.
"They were hung, honey. Their homes were burned down," said Merlene Jackson, a 65-year-old poll worker at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, referring to violence she heard about as a girl growing up in Valdosta, Ga. Today, "they're coming in and no one is hurting them, no one is shooting them down. I never thought I would see this. It's just joy all down my soul. When you are down so long, you don't think you can get up, and this is the unreachable."
Giddiness, along with the freight of the past, crept into neighborhoods across the country, where black voters gathered at house parties and street festivals. In Chicago, people jammed the streets around Michigan Avenue wearing T-shirts tracing black history from Rosa Parks to King to Obama. A car slowly passed through the crowd, its sides plastered with quotes from King and a giant picture of Obama mounted on the roof, along with the words "The Dream Comes True."
At a huge block party on Carnegie Avenue in the heart of Cleveland's East Side, young and old celebrated as they listened to a jazz band playing in a tent where telvisions showed coverage of the election returns. Every time a state was called for Obama, the crowd cheered.
"For countries who asked why black people would fight for a country where they are not treated as equals, this wipes all that out," said Arnold Pinkney, a 77-year-old political strategist who helped elect the nation's first black mayor of a major city, Carl Stokes of Cleveland, in 1967. "No one can acuse the country of that again. It's a magnificent night."
Even for some black voters who did not support Obama's candidacy, the mere fact that he was competing on equal footing in a presidential election was a powerful milestone.
"I never thought this would happen in my lifetime,” said C.T. Wright, the former president of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the country's oldest historically black college, who served as a delegate for John McCain at the Republican National Convention. “This is what we dreamed about back in the 1960s when we marched with Martin Luther King: that we would be judged on our qualifications, not on skin color."
Many across the country said they realize that the election of a single man does not obliterate the complex tensions of race, let alone the myriad problems facing the country. “We know we still have got to deal with issues and with politics and with racism,” said Robinson, the Roxbury voter who endured epithets at South Boston High. “It’s just that now we have a little more to hold on to.”
Still, voter after voter expressed an emphatic sense that their world had changed and that their country could now truly belong to them. "For once, we are going to actually see a black man as president of the United States,” said Acquanetta Smith, 56, of Rockford, Ill. “We're just as equal as anybody else, and just as smart as anybody else. I was thinking: 'I was voting for someone, not just for some people but for all.' We finally arrived. Everybody is equal. The color of skin doesn't matter."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.