President-elect Barack Obama stood before tens of thousands jammed into Chicago's Grant Park Tuesday night and told them: "Change has come to America."
Obama, the first African American ever to be elected president, was greeted by delirious cheers as his hometown embraced his landmark victory as a dream finally come true.
"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where anything is possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," said Obama.
"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, on this election, in this defining moment, change is coming to America."
Among those who never doubted was Hulon Johnson, 71, a retired Chicago public school principal. "It's fantastic," Johnson said. "I've always told my kids this was possible; now they'll have to believe me."
At a community center in the historic black neighborhood of Bronzeville south of downtown, 58-year-old Mary Jackson stood before a TV screen, her hands over her mouth and tears rolling down her cheeks.
"My God, my God," she said. "This is beyond belief. I feel so happy, so protected."
Oprah in the audience
A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 was on hand to greet Obama as he arrived on stage with his wife, Michelle, and daughters, Malia Ann and Natasha. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey were in the crowd. Hundreds of thousands more — Mayor Richard Daley said he would not be surprised if a million Chicagoans jammed the streets — watched on a large television screen outside the park.
In his first speech as victor, Obama catalogued the challenges ahead. "The greatest of a lifetime," he said, "two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century."
He added, "There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face."
He offered gracious words to his vanquished opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
"Sen. McCain fought long and hard in this campaign. He's fought even longer and harder for the country that he loves," Obama said. "We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader."
'When history was made'
Many came to Tuesday night's event to be a part of something that would be remembered for generations.
"I want her to be able to tell her children when history was made, she was there," said Alnita Tillman, 50, who kept her 16-year-old daughter, Raven, out of school so they could be at the park by 8 a.m., more than 10 hours before the gates opened.
A South Sider like Obama, Tillman had a coveted ticket to the rally in hand and high expectations for the man who was seeking to become the nation's first black president.
"The hope I have for Obama. It's in the African-American males being able to see what they can be, what they can do," she said.
The downtown Chicago park, where police fought anti-war protesters during the turbulent 1968 Democratic convention, was transformed by white tents and a stage lined with American flags and hung with red, white and blue bunting.
Beth Keegan, a 45-year-old white teacher from the wealthy suburb of Winnetka, jumped in the air and hugged her friend when Obama's victory was announced.
"I'm ecstatic!" she yelled. "It will be the beginning of racial healing in the country."
Also in the park crowd, the Rev. Jesse Jackson had tears streaming down his face as he heard the news. Jackson had to apologize earlier in the campaign for crude remarks he made about Obama that were caught by an open microphone.
His son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., called the election "a peaceful revolution."
"Tonight is an extraordinary celebration of an American story," the younger Jackson said at the rally. The Chicago Democrat won re-election Tuesday. "Barack Obama has obviously engaged the American people."
Part rock concert, part family outing
On an unseasonably warm November evening, with the temperature around 60 degrees, the rally felt like a cross between an outdoor rock concert and a big family outing. Many people wore Obama T-shirts and buttons and ate pizza. By 9 p.m. several babies slept on their mothers' chests. Other children snoozed in strollers.
In the park crowd was Lisa Boone, 42, of Chicago, who said she burst into tears earlier in the day pondering what an Obama victory would mean.
Boon said her father was the cousin of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black Chicagoan who was abducted and killed in Mississippi in 1955, purportedly for whistling at a white woman.
"I was thinking of all the things done to Emmett and injustices to black people," she said. "This is amazing, simply amazing."