On Election Night in 2008, I was the lucky news staffer assigned to cover the Georgia Republican Party's soiree at the InterContinental Hotel in Buckhead. Once the networks declared victory for Barack Obama, the scene in the ballroom, where hundreds of the state's top GOP politicos, activists, and corporate lobbyists had gathered to watch state-level election wins and John McCain's defeat, became miserable. Girlfriends consolingly rubbed the backs of guys who'd rolled their sleeves up tight and held their heads in their hands. One server stood along the wall watching McCain's concession speech on the Jumbotron with a smile. Another employee pumped his fists with joy as he walked into a kitchen.
I knew then that there would be no more news to report at the party, and that the story was now outside historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. King's children and last living sibling gathered in the new church across the street to watch the returns. An estimated 1,000 people also flocked to the civil rights leader's childhood neighborhood to do the same.
While driving back to the heart of the city, on streets that were largely empty, I switched on WABE to hear Obama's victory speech live. I tuned in just as he mentioned Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old African-American woman from Atlanta who, in her lifetime, had gone from not being allowed to vote to seeing a black man win the presidency.
Upon arriving at Auburn Avenue outside the church, I was greeted with an impromptu, crowded, vibrant block party. People — young, old, black, white, Asian, everyone — had taken over the street and were dancing and celebrating to music blaring from nearby cars, some of which were parked in the middle of the closed-off street. Strangers hugged strangers and wiped away tears. Fathers perched babies on their shoulders to view the party. Young women lined up to start dancing. A middle-aged husband and wife who drove to the city from the suburbs sat silently in their car watching the revelers. One entrepreneurial street vendor sold T-shirts with Obama's likeness.
The excitement was concentrated. If you had been walking just a few blocks away from the crowd, you might not have noticed the party at all.
Standing with my friends, I snapped photos of people rejoicing in Obama's election well after midnight, including the one above. These people weren't happy a Democrat was elected president, but that Obama was elected president. It was the celebration of a man and the "hope and change" message that he and his team sold so well. Green jobs! High-speed rail! Universal health care!
On Nov. 6, should Obama defeat Mitt Romney and win a second and final term, I doubt there will be another celebration outside the church. The thrill from knowing that history was being made has now faded into acceptance. People at that time were hungry. That moment in time, and more specifically the elation I saw that night, will never be repeated. But it was a first and it was beautiful while it lasted.
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