msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 11/5/2008 3:00:23 PM ET 2008-11-05T20:00:23

The election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States overwhelmed many African-American voters, especially older ones who still vividly recall the dark days of Jim Crow.

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Obama won 95 percent support from black voters nationwide, according to msnbc.com’s analysis of exit polling data. One of them was Ellora Lyons, 81, of Peoria, Ill.

Lyons recounted boarding a train to Oklahoma with her two oldest boys in 1948. Her brother had been killed in an accident, and they were going to his funeral.

“There was a sign on this train that said, 'n-----s to the back,’” she said. “And we couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain.”

“I remember my mom and my dad talking about black folks being not able to vote,” Lyons said. “I never thought that I would see a black man [in the White House], but I was hoping that one day that a black man would run for president.”

Leon Modeste of Community Outreach Ministry in Albany, Ga., said, “Never in my wildest dream did I think that an African-American would even be considered, let alone get this close to the presidency.

“I figured maybe my grandchildren or something,” would live to see it, but not him, Modeste said.

McCain honors ‘special pride’
The historic nature of Obama’s victory was hailed even by his opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“This is an historic election,” McCain told supporters in Phoenix. “I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.

“We both recognize that 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 have the power to wound,” McCain said.

“Let there be no reason for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth,” he said.

For Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a living legend of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the election of the son of a Kenyan father was an occasion for tears.

“I never imagined, I never even had any idea I would live to see an African-American president of the United States,” Lewis said in an interview on MSNBC.

“We have witnessed tonight in America a revolution of values, a revolution of ideals,” Lewis said. “There’s been a transformation of America, and it will have unbelievable influence on the world.”

‘Ultimate victory of the civil rights movement’
Obama never made race a central tenet of his campaign. In that sense, said Russell Adams, an emeritus professor of ethnic studies at Howard University in Washington, he built upon, but ultimately moved past, the grievance-based “moral suasion” arguments of an earlier civil rights era.

“This is the ultimate victory of the civil rights movement,” said Adams, who was chairman of Howard’s Department of Afro-American Studies for nearly 35 years. “This is the triumph of content and character over race.”

On a personal level, he said, “I'm old enough to remember when my grandfather was told he’d lose his farm if he kept talking about trying to vote. Obama is a culmination of the notion that we should not be punished for what God did, for how He made us.”

Pauline Veasy, 65, of Milwaukee, put it more simply.

“I’m just so happy!” she said at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, where dozens of black Milwaukee voters gathered to watch returns Tuesday night.

“An African-American? It’s just really, really great!”

With Tom Curry of msnbc.com and Athena Jones, Steve Handelsman and George Lewis of NBC News. The following NBC stations contributed to this report: KPNX of Phoenix; WAFF of Huntsville, Ala.; WLWT of Cincinnati; and WTMJ of Milwaukee.

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