From Selma to Washington, DC

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A group of adults and students from Knox Elementary, an all-black school in Selma, Ala., journeyed to Washington this week to witness the swearing-in of the first black president.

Writer Carmen Sisson went along for the ride as the kids ­ many of whom have never been to a city other than Birmingham­ prepared for the event with pride and new winter parkas.

Carmen: Charity may begin at home, but sometimes it arrives from far away -- really far away. Last year, when Knox Elementary Principal Joslyn Reddick decided she would take her students to the presidential inauguration, she didn't know if they'd be able to raise the funds. She booked hotel rooms and charter buses anyway, hoping everything would work out in the end.

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Monday night, Ms. Reddick and her students finally arrived in Waldorf, Md., where they'll stay until Wednesday when they return to Selma, Ala. Most people relax when they reach their destination, but for Reddick, the next phase begins: keeping track of 43 children and chaperones, and making sure it's a memorable occasion for everyone.

As students helped carry luggage and find rooms, Reddick consulted the thick binder that has rarely left her hands since the trip began. She hasn't made a final tally of the monetary and in-kind donations the school has received, but says she's been surprised by the outreach from not only the Selma community, but from places as far-flung as Maine, Sweden, and Tokyo.

She's been even more surprised by the letters she's received. Greeting cards, paper ripped from spiral notebooks, sticky notes attached to checks, scrawled messages of encouragement on whatever the writer could find. All have been added to her binder to boost her spirits when they flagged.

It's been a long journey ­ 837 miles, a 21-hour bus trip, and a lot of anticipation. And tomorrow the students begin a new journey, fighting the crowds to make it to the National Mall, where they will witness another man's journey come to fruition.

UPDATE 9:30am, Tuesday, January 20

By 9:30 a.m., the students from Knox Elementary School in Selma, Ala., are getting closer to their destination – a rendezvous with history. As we move away from the bland high rises of downtown Washington, things are starting to get more interesting, visually. A large metal pyramid enthralls, and we realize it's the Smithsonian. The museum of African Art is marked down as a must-see.

But as we get closer to the action, both security and the crowds tighten, and the shortest among us can no longer see the buildings. Periodically, police, fire trucks, and military jeeps come blaring down the streets, and many of the children are frightened, not understanding that every siren doesn't mean someone has been injured.

UPDATE:  12:42pm, Tuesday, January 20

The jubilant atmosphere is infectious. It's a beautiful day, and the flags waving in the wind, President Obama speaking in the background – there's such a profound sense of hope.

There's a 13th generation American who now lives in Spain. She came all the way over to be here for just this moment.
And though the walk was long and the temperature brutal, it was worth being here.

Yes, you can watch it at home on television, but you miss the murmurs of assent at key junctures in his speech, you miss seeing the determined optimism in people's eyes.

Still photographs can capture this, but when you walk through a crowd of thousands of people and see that same expression in every new face, you get a greater sense of just how much this election meant to not just our country, but its people.

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