Sign of the times

A screenshot from CNN shows Gwyn McAllister in the middle of a crowd Nov. 7 with her one-word sign.

It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time — with the right message.

As an unpublished author, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words that nobody, except for a few close friends, has ever read. But on Nov. 7, 2020, I wrote one word on a small black sign that was read by literally millions of people around the globe.

That one word was “Hallelujah.” It was the message that summed up exactly how I was feeling when I heard the cheering outside my New York apartment on West 48th St., and realized that Biden had finally been declared winner of the 2020 presidential race. As planned, I was heading out to Times Square to celebrate, and I had decided to bring a sign. I wasn’t seeking attention. I just wanted to express my state of mind to anyone I might see that day. Little did I know that my sign would appear in pictures and video in media outlets worldwide.

Around 12:30, I headed down Ninth Avenue, sign aloft. The streets were full of people cheering, banging on pots and pans, honking their car horns, and just generally making as much noise as possible. My “Hallelujah” sign was an immediate hit. People stopped to take my picture, or just shouted my word back to me, fists raised. Cutting across 45th St., a journalist from Argentina stopped me for an interview. This was more attention than I had expected to receive. It was nice. Then I hit 44th and Broadway, where a throng was gathered. I threw myself into the melee. Shortly after I got there, the police closed off the immediate Broadway streets to traffic, and the party swung into high gear. 

While taking a quick break from the crowd to smoke a cigarette, I checked my phone. There was a text from a friend in California, with a picture of me and my sign on MSNBC. She had been watching their live coverage of the celebration and spotted me. “That’s cool,” I thought. I headed back into the midst of the action, jumping, cheering, chanting along with the crowd. A group of young women were dancing and singing along to a playlist that included “I Will Survive” and “New York, New York.” Spontaneous loud roars and chants of “Ka-ma-la” and “No more Trump” broke out throughout the afternoon. A couple was attempting to recreate the famous Eisenstadt photo of the sailor/nurse kiss on V-J Day, but she couldn’t quite keep her footing.

It was an incredible, once-in-a lifetime experience to be witnessing, as well as participating in, this moment of pure, uninhibited excitement. People shouted “Hal-le-lu-jah!” at me over and over, and offered elbow bumps. I spoke to one young Latino man who was proud to tell me that he had voted for the first time ever. Others shared their stories of when and how they had heard the news. The joy and relief on people’s faces was what struck me more than anything. Exhilaration was evident everywhere in a crowd that incorporated a wide range of ages, races, and ethnicities. There were women in hijabs, lots of young men sporting rainbow flag wear, some women in scrubs who must have just broken away from work for a few minutes, groups of teenage girls in Biden T shirts, and a few kids riding on the shoulders of their mothers or fathers. The Times Square cartoon characters were the only ones not actively participating, but even they smiled from the sidelines as they stood by, holding their giant heads in their arms, realizing that this wasn’t going to be a day for Disney photo ops. 

I hadn’t really been paying much attention to the members of the media on hand, but they spotted me. I was soon singled out by professional photographers, who snapped away from different angles, shone lights on me, and jockeyed for position. I was interviewed by a reporter from ABC, and a few others I never bothered to identify. I have to confess, the attention I was getting was a big ego boost, adding to the already intense adrenaline rush of the experience. But what really made the day for me was the reaction of other participants to my sign. My message helped me to connect to people. I posed for everyone with a cell phone who wanted a picture (and there were dozens, if not hundreds), and obliged those who wanted me to include me in selfies. I yelled greetings back to anyone who responded to my sign. Hallelujah, Hallelujah! I heard it again and again. 

It was when I got home after about two hours of reveling that I checked my email and found messages from people who had spotted me on the news. Friends in Oregon and Massachusetts wrote to me. After I posted the MSNBC screenshot on Facebook, people replied that they had seen the sign, but didn’t realize it was me. On Sunday I got more messages from a couple of people who had seen me on CBS’s “Sunday Morning.” A friend from Brazil sent me a screen grab from a Brazilian TV station. Another friend emailed me a link to a picture from a U.K. publication.

Clearly, from the amount of attention my simple white-on-black sign got, that one word spoke for people all across the country, and for publications worldwide, symbolized the collective sigh of relief that so many Americans were experiencing on that historic day.

When Hillary lost the election in 2016, Kate McKinnon, dressed as Clinton, sang Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” on SNL, and we all cried. Now in 2020 the word expressed pure joy. Generally when I make a sign for a march or rally, I go with something snarky, or at least clever. It took me weeks to come up with the message I wanted to convey to the crowds at the Women’s March in DC in 2017. I finally settled on “Transition 2017: From Class Act to Jackass.” 

However, when I heard the news on Nov. 7, “hallelujah” was simply the first word that came to mind. It not only expressed the feeling of victory after four years of tyranny, but also the sense of release after four days of waiting for validation of the election results. And it had proven to be the right word — one that clearly resonated with so many New Yorkers, along with, as I would discover, multitudes of others around the world. 

I soon discovered my image on websites for the Daily News, Britain’s Evening Standard, and many more, even Breitbart. 

When I saw my picture (wearing a Black Lives Matter sweatshirt and holding my sign overhead triumphantly) used as the centerpiece of a pictorial spread in London’s MetroUK, I felt incredibly pleased to have provided one image, among many, of how we as a nation responded to the takedown of Trump. My message told the world that we were not the nation of isolationism, racism, xenophobia, and greed that our 45th president represented. I could feel proud to be an American once again. Just one woman who, by casting her ballot, chose tolerance, decency, and unity over hate and divisiveness. 

One vote. One message. 



Gywn MacAllister is a freelance writer for The Times. She lives in New York City, but is a frequent visitor to Martha’s Vineyard.



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