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‘Pinch me': Blacks in Utah rejoice at the historic outcome

SHARE ‘Pinch me': Blacks in Utah rejoice at the historic outcome

In a corner of the University of Utah's student union, Wazir Jefferson counted aloud as the seconds ticked down and California's polls closed.

Dressed in a shirt that featured the words, "I have a dream," the graduate student quietly raised his arms in the air.

"President Barack Obama. President Barack Obama," Jefferson repeated.

With the election of the United States' first black president, the emotions that swelled inside blacks for years leading up to the historic election seemed to burst Tuesday.

"I never thought I would live to see this day," said Jeanetta Williams, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's branch in Salt Lake City.

Betty Sawyer, the adviser for the U.'s Black Student Union, believed otherwise.

"I'm an optimist," she said. "But when it finally does happen, it's very surreal. Pinch me."

Many blacks said Obama's victory was a step toward realizing Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, and a step forward for America.

The optimist, however, was holding her breath for much of the evening.

Pennsylvania went to Obama. With Ohio and New Mexico, friends told her it was time to relax. "I'm staying until the end," she said. Like so many people, Sawyer already had waited through a two-year campaign — and through decades of turmoil before that.

"I can wait," she said.

The election had been the buzz among the congregation of the Calvary Baptist Church earlier in the week.

"Their conversation is filled with excitement," the Rev. France Davis said Tuesday, prior to the first returns. "I don't hear anybody talk about Mr. McCain. Everybody seems to be talking about Mr. Obama."

But while many pollsters predicted an Obama landslide, some blacks remained cautious. Sara Porter, a senior at the U., said she worried about racism creeping into voting booths.

"We do have some worries," Porter said. "We're not going to say he has this in the bag."

When the polls closed along the West Coast, however, Sawyer and members of the Black Student Union shouted and danced.

Obama's victory, they said, was only the beginning.

"It's part of a larger dream," Jefferson said.

Erika George met Obama in a Chicago gym. Obama, not then a senator, encouraged her to apply to Harvard Law School.

"He was supportive and encouraging," said George, now a U. law professor. "He was saying 'yes, you can' before there was a camera pointed at him."

With the cameras trained on him now, Obama will be a symbol for future generations of blacks and other minorities.

"It's something to be proud about," Williams said. "We can point to him and say, 'You work and you can achieve."'

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was a key supporter of fellow Republican John McCain but said Tuesday that Obama's victory makes him proud.

He said for his wife, Mary Kaye, who grew up in a segregated South, Obama's win shows that "in a few short years, our country can go from that to an African-American going on to win the most important office in the world. You can't help but be very proud to be an American."

The president-elect had touted change throughout his campaign, and that's what he will bring, said Lonnie Zunguze, a U. senior who came out early and voted for Obama.

"There are still more dreams to be realized in our country," Sawyer said. "This represents a major turning point."

E-mail: afalk@desnews.com