Civil Rights Hero Proud Of Obama's Victory

Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta faced no general election opposition and was re-elected unanimously. Lewis, a civil rights hero, was an ardent Barack Obama supporter. Lewis said Tuesday night "was an unbelievable night."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One man watching with great anticipation as the returns came in last night was John Lewis, the longtime civil rights leader and Democratic congressman from Georgia. Decades after he marched for black voting rights, Lewis saw the United States elect its first African-American president. From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: Harkening back to 1965, Congressman Lewis recalled a time of oppression and fear when hundreds tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in an effort to earn African-Americans the right to vote. They were met by state troopers who used teargas and billy clubs to stop the march in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

(Soundbite of archive recording of Bloody Sunday, 1965)

Major JOHN CLOUD (Commander, Alabama State Troopers): It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march, and I'm saying that this is an unlawful assembly. You have to disperse, you are ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church.

LOHR: John Lewis was knocked to the ground, severely beaten, and ended up with a fractured skull. Last night he recognized the change he began fighting for a generation ago is happening.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Atlanta): Well, I must tell you this is an unbelievable, unreal night.

LOHR: Lewis and many African-Americans say they've lived to see Martin Luther King's dream realized. But they say it was not without an immense struggle.

Representative LEWIS: In my mind, just sort of going back to the people who stood in those unmovable lines in Selma, Alabama, a few short years ago, the people that was beaten, some shot and killed in Mississippi for attempting to register to vote, those who died and went to their graves who never ever had an opportunity to vote for anyone or even have an opportunity to register because they failed the so-called literacy test. So I'm deeply moved and cherished by what I see happening here in America tonight.

LOHR: At Lewis election headquarters in Atlanta, several hundred people waited anxiously to hear the results of the national race. All eyes were on several big-screen televisions until Obama reached the magic number, 270 electoral votes.

(Soundbite of song "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Mr. SAM COOKE: (Singing) Its been a long, a long time coming, But I know a change is gonna come. Oh, yes it will.

LOHR: Lewis was re-elected to Congress without opposition. But on this historic evening, the son of a sharecropper focused on Barack Obama's victory rather than his own.

Representative LEWIS: It doesn't matter whether it will be a black, a white, a Latino, a Asian American, a Native American. Barack Obama is saying to America, we are one people.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering and applauding)

Representative LEWIS: We are one house. We are one family.

LOHR: There was dancing. And some who came to watch the race were overwhelmed by the results. Thirty-two-year-old Ardelia Austen(ph), a real estate agent, stepped outside to catch her breath.

Ms. ARDELIA AUSTEN (Real Estate Agent): This time - this time, it really - it wasn't stolen this time. Every vote counted, everybody turned - the numbers couldn't lie. There was no way to deny us this time. We got it. This is our America. This is it.

LOHR: It was an emotional victory, one that took decades to deliver, and one that Congressman John Lewis is now savoring. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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