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What victory would mean

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 4 Nov 08, 04:17 AM GMT

Jacksonville, Florida, and Manassas, Virginia: In Jacksonville, Florida, today the crowd had not come to listen to a speech. They had come to cheer, to celebrate. This was more like a homecoming, a ticker-tape moment.

So when Barack Obama started to speak, he was interrupted frequently. They chanted his name.

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At the edge of the crowd, I started talking to African-Americans. They all believe that Obama will be the next president. There are few doubters in the crowds. There was a 72-year-old who remembered when dogs were turned on black voters. "This is such a big step," he said. "As big as when Jackie Robinson, the black baseball player, made it through."

Another man said it "would change the face of America". For him, it would be the moment when the American dream had meaning. He said it would mean that any person, whatever their colour or belief, could make it to the top.

I asked several people how they would react at the moment they knew that the next president of the United States was a black man. One woman said to me with a smile: "Cry. I will cry. Cry for joy and cry for all that has passed."

The 72-year-old said he would cry too. Tomorrow night, if victory goes to Obama, there will be a lot of tears and a lot of memories, some painful.

I came away from these conversations struck again as to how momentous this night could be. I met people who remember benches with the words "whites only" on them. Others talked about sit-ins at lunch counters. Others talked about the "Freedom Rides". All of this is within living memory.

There will be millions of African-Americans tomorrow who will recall the long struggle that has brought them to this point.

I was in Chicago about 10 years ago. I made a programme called "American Apartheid". It coincided with the Million Man March, when hundreds of thousands of African-Americans marched in Washington.

I remember the hopelessness of the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago's South Side. I recall hearing the preacher Louis Farrakhan talk of "white devils", and the crowd was with him.

How times have changed and how Barack Obama has changed the times. The gangs had no role models and saw no means of escaping their neighbourhood. Obama, from the outset, did not want to define himself as a black candidate. Part of his appeal was that he said there was no black or white or Hispanic, only Americans.

The past two times that I have heard Michelle Obama, she has told a story. She talks of meeting an 80-year-old on the rope line who says to her: "I never thought I would live to see the day." On neither occasion does she finish the thought. She does not have to. Everyone listening knows that the man was saying that he never thought he'd live to see a black man living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So, a victory for Obama on Tuesday evening would lead to huge celebrations - but to reflection, too, on the struggle that brought Americans to the point that they would vote for an African-American.

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