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'I never dared to dream of a black US president'

With Obama on the brink of victory, America's leading black voices tell us what it means to them – while David Usborne visits black churchgoers in Chicago praying for an epoch-making result

He is not actually among us, but in the pews of the Apostolic Church of God here on the southern edge of Chicago, there is one man who is receiving strength from a thousand private prayers. Here, and indeed in black congregations all across America, they are saying their blessings for Barack Obama.

"We are not endorsing," the Reverend Byron Brazier, reminds a flock that is not only filling the main sanctuary, with space for 3,000 souls but has packed an overflow chapel today as well. The worshippers, in their Sunday best, laugh gently. It is illegal to give a partisan plug from the pulpit in America, but no one here needs a nudge or a wink about whom they are meant to be supporting.

And the Reverend does not hold himself back entirely. Not in prayer and not in his sermon, but rather in a conversational moment of church announcements, he concedes that something big may happen on Tuesday. The country may elect its first African American president. It may be, he says, "a good time for Senator Obama". The applause is instant and a few shout back at him, "Yes sir" and "Hallelujah".

"You won't find too many McCain buttons being worn here," says Elliott Wilson, 55, a security guard and a volunteer at the church, which has one of the biggest African American congregations in Chicago. He voted early, even though it meant standing in line for five hours last Thursday.

With a state-of-the-art studio to broadcast its services on television as well as classrooms and banqueting halls, this happens also to be the church where a private funeral will be held for the recently murdered mother, brother and nephew of the actress and singer Jennifer Hudson.

The applause at the mention of Mr Obama is equalled only at the service's end, when five members of the congregation hear the urgings of Reverend Brazier to "cut Satan loose", step forward to find Jesus and be baptised. One by one, they are lowered in a pool of water on a platform high above the altar as the 200-strong choir in sky blue robes, sing and sway with help from a 30-piece orchestra.

Though his home is in nearby Hyde Park, Senator Obama's ties to the church are shallow. But this year, after he renounced his former pastor at the United Trinity Church, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, it was to the Apostolic Church that he bought his wife and two children on Father's Day and spoke. A brief attempt by clerks in the church's gift shop to find the DVD of that day turns up nothing. They are sold out but can be ordered, of course. "That has already become a collector's item," Mr Wilson reports.

Emerging into a shimmering autumn day, Carlita Smith, 35, dressed smartly in a brown suit with a matching hat, confesses that she prayed for Mr Obama inside. "Definitely," she says. "I pray for him all the time. I pray for his safety and the safety of his family. And I pray that he is treated fairly." And does she pray that he wins? "Of course," she says, but with a touch of shyness.

"This is only somewhat in our hands," says Mr Wilson, who as a young man served at a US Naval base in Scotland. He still remembers taking a train to London from Edinburgh. "We got there at eight the next morning". "It is the Lord who will make the final decision for us. He will decide if this is what America needs at this particular time." But in his prayers, is Mr Wilson prodding the Lord in one particular direction? He is. "I know what His decision will be. I really hope Obama wins."

Darnell Wilson – no relation to Elliott – is worshipping today with tidy dreadlocks and a black coat that reaches to his ankles. He could almost pass as a preacher himself but, at 24 years old, his look today is perhaps is more bling-rap. Like nearly everyone at the church today, his praying not just for Mr Obama to win but that there are no voter irregularities tomorrow that might impede him.

"I pray that the Lord will strengthen him and that the voting will be carried out correctly and in good order," he says. "And, yes, I pray too that he wins."

What will it mean to Darnell Wilson if Mr Obama emerges as the winner late tomorrow and – sometime around midnight – appears on the stage in Grant Park, close to downtown Chicago? Should the Lord be propelling the Senator because he is black, because he would be the first black President?

"It would of course be wonderful to have an African American as President," he says. "But the Lord first wants someone who is qualified to lead this country. And I do believe that Senator Obama is qualified to do the job."

Maya Angelou, novelist: 'If he wins, it means my country has agreed to grow up'

I never thought I'd see a black president in the White House in my lifetime. I didn't even dare dream it. I feel like a child approaching Christmas, you can't believe election day is finally here. It's been so long since we've had people – Asian and black, white and Spanish-speaking – come together and say YES. Some did during the civil rights struggle but not as many as today. What it means if Mr Obama is voted in, is that my country has agreed to grow up, and move beyond the childish idea that human beings are different.

I'm talking to friends in the UK, in Italy, in China who can't vote, who cannot press anything other than the point home, so I know the world is watching. We have lain so long in the undergrowth of ignorance. Can we really be saved from the rage of consumerism where we identify ourselves by our spending: 'I'm a shopper'. What kind of stupidness is that? Buying things we cannot afford and do not need.

I'm no prophet, I'm no seer, I'm a beseecher – so I have been out to thump the drum for Mr Obama. I started out in Senator Hillary Clinton's camp and I thumped the drum for her.

When it was proven that the majority of people wanted Senator Obama, she stepped out of the race and began to thump the drum for him, and so did I.

I think he has simply proven to everybody that he is very intelligent – and by that I'm referring to what used to be called common sense, which is terribly uncommon these days. You can see him thinking before he speaks, which should be a presidential prerequisite but rarely is. Most of the candidates all the way back, save for two or three, seem to just punch a button. There's a question and they punch number seven and out comes an answer, which had been stored up.

Senator Obama has proven that he knows how to be a president to all the people, not just the rich and mighty, not just to whites, not just to blacks, but all the people. I'm so excited, the excitement can hardly be contained. How will I be spending election night? On my knees. Maybe getting off them to have a very nice Scotch and then getting back down on my knees again.

Toni Morrison, novelist: 'Things are different now. A lot of white people are different'

This election is critical, vital to more than just people in the United States. It's going to make a big, big difference which way it goes. The worst thing is not Senator Obama losing, it's who wins. I am encouraged by the polls and by him but I have lived long enough to know that elections have been systematically stolen. Luckily, I think everybody knows that and is sending about 5,000 lawyers to the polls.

I don't believe in the Bradley Effect – there were a lot of reasons he lost. And this time is different. First of all the country is different. Secondly he's different. And thirdly a lot of white people are different. Several weeks ago I read about the Reverse Bradley Effect, where whites down in the south say they are voting Republican because of their neighbours!

I think the situation is dire, I cannot think of a large issue where things are going right, and Senator Obama will have an extremely difficult time. But there are two things that one should remember. The first is a cliché, but he himself has said it, 'It's not about me, it's about other people'. He cannot do it on his own, he needs the force of those who voted for him. The second thing – and one of the reasons I really respect him – is that he surrounds himself with really smart people, and not just smart people that say what he wants to hear. He likes the dialogue, the questioning, the one who tells him the truth as opposed to the one who strokes ego.

I think the promise with Senator Obama is that we return to an idea known as "the common good" and we have not had that in eight years. I mean, you can't get sick in America, you will be bankrupt. This administration has been very clear in its assumption that privatisation is best. There are jails where you have to pay room and board, you get into debt and when you get out you have to pay it back. And some people who do not have means to borrow go out and steal again. I know that the Democrats are more inclined to take the right position and not regard taxes on the extremely rich as some sort of insult to them.

What am I going to do on election night? I have three choices: I can go to some friends; I was invited to go on a TV show; but I think under the bed may yet prove the safest place to be.

Samuel L Jackson, Actor: 'There's been a warrior culture here. It's time that ended'

We have been through eight years of pretty much lunacy and madness. In America, we have tended to think that we are the greatest living things on the planet and our leadership has exemplified that. There's been a sort of warrior culture here, and it's time that ended. Obama is the president to take us to the next place. He's not part of the establishment, number one. He doesn't have that sense of entitlement that others have had. What he does have is a sense of empathy for people who are on the lower rung of society and he doesn't want to give the people with all the money all the breaks.

It's not just about what an Obama victory will mean to the African American community, it's for the nation in general. It means something for the little Asian kid, or the little Hispanic kid, for everybody of a different origin than Anglo-American. It actually means that the lie that they told us all these years – that you can grow up to be anything you want to be in America, even the president – might actually be true now. Until this election, it was just a fantasy – you had to be white to be president. The closest we got to it was when Jimmy Smits was elected president on the West Wing or Morgan Freeman being president on screen.

I grew up in the segregated South, and there's probably still two generations who grew up next to "Whites Only" signs. We were part of that time in America when we were second-class citizens, so no, I didn't expect to see this in my lifetime. It's really wonderful and revelatory in terms of how far we have come so fast. And hopefully it will signify a major change in how we are perceived in the world community. Obama represents what we hope America can be.

But I will not be comfortable until 5 November. I was in the UK for the 2000 election. When I went to bed in Liverpool that night, Bush had lost, when I woke up the next morning Bush had won. Until I go to Obama's inauguration in January, I won't really believe it. And I'm definitely going, I've made hotel reservations already.

Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader: 'I just wish Martin Luther King was here to share the joy'

It will be the sixth time I've voted for Barack Obama. When he ran for the State Senate I voted for him in the primary and the general; when he ran for the US Senate I voted for him in the primary and the general; and in his run for the presidency I voted for him in the primary and will be voting for him in the general. I will spend election day on the phone, encouraging people to go out and vote. I will not be letting up until the polls close.

Our struggle in America for civil rights started out with the right to vote and now Mr Obama is on the doorstep of the White House. We got the right to vote in 1965, that's 43 years ago, and we have kept evolving over those years. America is a country that continues to grow, it's maturing. This election says to Europe, Africa and Asia that democracy is real and that we must rise above limitations of race and gender to achieve our purpose.

The people of America are ready for a black president now. Senator Obama's race is self-evident, he made an issue out of it. He's reached out to people across the divide and had universal appeal by focussing on the real issues.

There's a great sense of joy. I just wish Dr [Martin Luther] King were here to share it. He would be overjoyed. But he would also know that we have challenges beyond the election. He would be proud of where we are but he would remind us that we are not all the way there yet, until we wipe out poverty and illiteracy and end these unnecessary wars.

Jay-Z, rapper

Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Obama could run. Obama's running so that we all can fly. I can't wait until 5 November and I'm going to say 'Hello, Brother President'.

"I can't tell you who to vote for. All I can do is tell you to vote," Jay said to an audience, before quickly offering a disclaimer.

"I'm not running for president, so I don't want to feel restrained. I don't want Barack or his campaign to be tied to anything I do here tonight. I'm just a private citizen doing my thing. Free speech and all that."

Spike Lee, director

I say it's very simple, we have BB before Barack and AB after Barack.

This coalition that he's got: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, whatever. It's come together and this has never been done before and I think this thing is preordained or whatever we want to call it. I'm not going to say it's God, but this is not a mistake, this is happening now. He's here when his country is at it's lowest in many many years.

Even though I live in Manhattan, I still vote out of Brooklyn, so 4 November I'm going to be the first in line in Brooklyn. Then I'm going to get a flight to Chicago and I'll be there all day.

Tiger Woods, Golfer

I've seen him speak. He's extremely articulate, very thoughtful, I'm just impressed at how well, basically all politicians really do, how well they think on their feet. Especially those debates. It's pretty phenomenal to see them get their point across. But I just think that he's really inspired a bunch of people in our country and we'll see what happens down the road.

Alonzo Mourning, basketball player

I need to be part of this because this is part of the history of our nation and I do have a voice in the community – I have a presence and it's beautiful to be able to use it on behalf of something I believe in. Some athletes worry something like this might affect their sponsorship deals, but I'm not afraid. Obama has given real leadership. I'm not ashamed to say I'm with him all the way.

Stevie Wonder, musician

He's a combination of JFK and Martin Luther King. With that, he can't lose. I see a time when we will have a united people of the United States. And that is why I support Barack Obama.

James Blake, tennis player

I am proud. I am very proud of Barack Obama. I believe in him and I believe that he will do good things for this country. I hope the country gives him that opportunity.

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