RICHMOND, Va. — As 13 electors cast ballots Monday for the nation's first black president in the Confederacy's old Capitol, Henry Marsh emotionally recalled the smartest man he ever knew — a waiter, who couldn't get a better job because of his race.
"He waited tables for 30 years, six days a week, 12 hours a day, from 12 noon to 12 midnight, and he supported his family," Marsh, 75, a civil rights lawyer and state senator, said of his father as he fought back tears. "He suffered a lot. He went through a lot."
In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the 538 electors performed a constitutional process to legally elect Democrat Barack Obama the 44th president.
More than 131 million voters cast ballots — the most ever in a presidential election. But Obama's election is not complete until Congress tallies the outcome of Monday's Electoral College vote at a joint session scheduled for Jan. 6.
Monday's voting was largely ceremonial, the results preordained by Obama's Nov. 4 victory over Republican Sen. John McCain. Obama won 365 electoral votes, to 173 for McCain. With every state reporting, all the electors had cast ballots in accordance with the popular votes in their states.
In many states, the formal, staid proceeding was touched with poignance, particularly among people old enough to recall a time when voting alone posed the risk of violence for black Americans.
The contrast at Virginia's Capitol, where the Confederate Congress met, was particularly striking.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine noted in his speech that the 200-year-old Capitol was where lawmakers just 50 years ago orchestrated the state's formal defiance of federal school desegregation orders. But he also noted that it is where L. Douglas Wilder took his oath as the nation's first elected black governor in 1990.
"This temple of Democracy shines very brightly today," Kaine told a standing-room-only crowd attending what had always been a sparsely attended afterthought.
In Florida, state Sen. Frederica Wilson, 66, never thought she would see a black man elected president.
"White water fountains, colored water fountains. You couldn't sit at the lunch counter, go to the bank or get a hamburger," Wilson said after signing a document certifying that Obama got all 27 of her state's electors.
"The pain will always be there, but I think there's a realization that people have evolved," she said.
In North Carolina, 61-year-old Janice Cole said Monday's event was a joyous marker for black people to put old Dixie's trouble past behind them.
"Sen. Obama reminds us that only in America could this story be possible," Cole said.
As a pro football legend, Franco Harris signs his autograph countless thousands of times. But the signature he made as one of 21 Pennsylvania electors for Obama was the one the Pittsburgh Steelers great running back won't ever forget.
"That was special," the Pro Football Hall of Famer said. "This was the most valuable thing I've ever signed my name to."
In Augusta, Maine, the moment was freighted with emotion for Jill Duson, the first black mayor of Portland and chairwoman of Maine's four electors.
"Every time I think of it, I get a little misty eyed," Duson said. "I am undone by the election of Barack Obama and what it says to me as a black American, and his victory in the whitest state."
Sedrick Rawlins, a retired 81-year-old dentist from Manchester, Conn., traveled to Selma, Ala., in 1965 to help the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with the bloody march to Montgomery. The night Obama won the election, he said, he wept with joy. On Monday, he couldn't stop smiling.
"The election is one thing, but it's really official when they seal those ballots with wax and send them off," Rawlins said.
Colorado elector Wellington Webb, Denver's first and only black mayor, said the chance to cast an electoral vote for the first black president was the honor of a lifetime, one that would have made King proud.
"He would find the dream fulfilled," Webb said.