Even before dawn, the National Mall began filling up with throngs of people – happy, diverse, supportive – with no doubt as to why they were there.
The inauguration of Barack Obama was a historic moment, and despite the distance, the hardship, and the bitter cold there was no other place to be.
For some, the day marked a lifetime of protest and hope, a celebration of values they hold dear. For the youngest among them, it was a chance to see something great.
Some faced the day wrapped in fur and leather, others in sweatshirts that barely kept out the cold. What they shared was a sense of the momentousness of the moment.
“They could be sitting at home in a warm, cozy place, but this is history,” said Principal Judy Phillips. The students, ranging from fourth to seventh grade, left home in the Bronx at 11 p.m. and arrived in Washington at 4:30 a.m.
“I wanted to come. Just the thought of having a black president, it’s really great for us African-Americans to be looked at in a different way,” said Kwoade Cross, an eighth-grader from Harlem who got to come along at the last minute when his cousin showed up with an extra ticket. “But I didn’t know it was going to be this cold.”
He tells a story: “I was in McDonald’s and my friend called me the ‘N’ word, and a man turned around and said: ‘Do you know what you’re saying, young man?’ And we said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said: ‘Slave masters used to call us that because we wouldn’t amount to nothing,’ and I looked around and he was right.
“Now look at us! Nearly a hundred years later, they can’t say anything now. We’ve got a black president. The people who still believe that we should be slaves or still be discriminated against, they see now that we’re not dumb,” he added.
By mid-morning, with hours to go before the president-elect laid a hand on the Lincoln Bible, two-for-$5 handwarmers were circulating faster than bottled water on those scorching days more typical of life on the National Mall. When Lauren Morhand, from Arlington, Va., called out that she was selling the must-have foil packets to raise money for her June wedding, people nearby burst into applause.
Knowing that bridges from Virginia would be closed, Nigel Hutchinson and Esa Martel set their alarms for 2 a.m. to be sure to be on one of the first subway cars to cross the river. Their 11-year-old son, Storm, barely visible through hats and scarves, wasn’t convinced this was a good idea.
“At first I didn’t want to come, but this is interesting. The people are friendly and it’s a chance to see Barack Obama,” he said, uncovering his nose and mouth only long enough to speak. It was, he said, very cold.
“As a mother of a mixed-race child, this day is special to me,” said his mother. “Instead of them being looked down on, it shows that the world is coming around to accepting people.”
“It’s definitely a start,” said husband Nigel, a project manager for a telecom company. He loves the qualities that Mr. Obama and his family bring to the White House. “I feel like he is bringing family back to us.”
Rajiv Tarigopula and Jacob Sloan left St. Louis at midnight Friday in a bus, with classmates from Parkway West High School, and drove 16 hours to D.C. They watched the first “Harry Potter” movie three times en route and were on one of the first Metro cars heading into Washington on the Red Line.
“We signed up [to come] before we knew who would be president. I thought that no matter what happened it would be an extremely historic event, because we were going to move in a new direction,” said Jacob.
Obama’s inauguration “is showing that America has moved in a new direction, and anything is possible, almost, now, and hopefully some day everything will be possible for everyone, no matter what minority you may be,” he added.
“Barack Obama has really inspired a lot of people. He’s given the hope and dream that they themselves can aspire to the highest level of success,” said Rajiv.
The view from VIP-land
The stars were out in force in Sections 1 and 2 – the inaugural viewing areas closest to the podium – giving the crowd something to watch, preceremony. Sean “Diddy” Combs, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z stood in the aisle and greeted fans, though human gridlock prevented most in the area from getting close. Somehow, Maria Menounos of “Access Hollywood” got in there with her cameraman and microphone. And cellphones and cameras pointed at them from all directions.
“Beyoncé looks so pretty – her hair is down!” one inauguration-goer gushed into her cellphone.
For some, getting to be there meant more than just witnessing history. Pauletta Washington, wife of Denzel, felt a personal connection. Her grandparents had worked in the White House kitchen, then for Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
“And now I’m here, front-row center, to see a president that looks like me take the oath of office,” said Ms. Washington, looking toasty in her fur coat.
“The color of his skin is very important, but it’s really about his heart and his spirit.... I feel it so much, his hope, his encouragement, his inspiration, and I believe he will listen and hear, and I believe that he will act on what he hears. It’s not empty promises.”
Don King, the flamboyant boxing promoter, sporting a rhinestone-encrusted jacket decorated with patriotic themes, held court in Section 1.
“Did I think [Obama] was going to be elected this quick? No!” he said, posing for pictures with fellow inauguration-goers. “Anybody telling you otherwise, it’s a lie. I was hoping, praying it would happen, not for Barack but for the American people.”
“It ain’t about Barack,” King continued. “Barack is just gonna be that symbol at the top.... It’s the American people and the change in heart and mind, that’s what counts.”
But wasn’t King a supporter of George W. Bush, the just-departed Republican president? In fact, he was, and he’s proud of it. “I’m a Republicrat,” King asserted. “A Republicrat supports America and who’s best for America, whoever that may be. George W. Bush, irregardless and irrespective to all the problems he may be beleaguered with, he included us.”
Former President Bush “prepared the path” that would enable the likes of Obama to reach the top, by putting prominent African-Americans – Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell – in key administration jobs, King said.
More touching, though, than all the attention-grabbing celebrities were the elderly black men, many in wheelchairs, seated off to the side. They were members of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black fighter squadron that served in World War II at a time when the military was segregated.
Lorenzo Holloway, a 91-year-old Tuskegee airman from Detroit, said he would have been happy to stay home and watch the inauguration on TV, but his son wouldn’t allow it. When the invitation came for Obama’s inauguration, he planned his trip to Washington.
How did it feel to be here? “Cold!” he joked. Then he added: “As many times as I’ve been to Washington, I’ve never been to anything like this, and it’s really something.”
The ‘race talk,’ right on the Mall
The long hours in waiting seemed to spark a conversation about race, opportunity, and the future, right in the middle of it all on the Mall – the closest thing the US capital has to sacred, civic space.
Obama’s inauguration changes “everything,” said Sarah Donaldson, a reading teacher from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., who traveled with family members to New York and then drove to D.C. to witness the piece of history that Obama’s inauguration represented to her.
It gives her students “hope,” she said, adding that she’s also pragmatic.
Obama may lift everyone up, but he can’t erase history and the differences between races. “Racism is something that will never go away,” she said. “Never ever.”
Moses Johnson and his wife, Rita, a biracial couple from Philadelphia, were more hopeful. They met in Washington 43 years ago at the Hot Shoppe on 16th Street. As a college student in Kittrell, N.C., Mr. Johnson joined sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, where, he recalled, he got “beat up a few times and slapped by a policeman.”
“I was there when the crosses were burning and the baseball bats were flying,” he said. “It’s exciting to be able to stand here in my lifetime and realize there has been progress.”
“Sometimes it seems like things took a long time, and in other ways it seems like it went very fast – the way things have evolved. But this is special,” said Mrs. Johnson. “I came today because I feel I owe this to the next generation to try to begin to have some change and hope in this country, and because I’ve never forgiven myself for missing the March on Washington in 1963. And I would never forgive myself for missing another significant event.”
As the Mall filled up, people gathered around more than 20 JumboTron screens set up around the Mall, cheering as they got a glimpse of Obama or his family for the first time as the inauguration got under way.
People stood on dumpsters and sign trucks or climbed up trees to get a better view.
“The world is changing, and it’s about time,” said a black woman in a bright red coat. “Woooo hooo!”
The African-American community has in many ways lost its way, and Obama’s inauguration as president holds promise to turn it all around, said Doreen Bryant, standing on a sign truck at 14th and Constitution to watch a JumboTron screen across the street as Obama took the oath.
“We’ve lost sight of mentoring. We’ve lost sight of community,” said Ms. Bryant, an office manager at the Department of Energy.
As Obama talked about personal responsibility, she noted that it’s as much up to the African-American community to lift itself up as it is to government to provide more resources.
“It’s going to be work, and it’s not going to happen in the next five to 10 years,” she said. “It’ll take a lifetime.”
Clifton Beckley, in from Irvington, N.J., overheard the conversation, and joined in. Yes, African-Americans must stand up on their own, he said. But when you consider the all-black schools his children attend near Newark, he wondered if Obama couldn’t do something to provide more resources for his kids’ school. It’s not all African-Americans’ fault. They need help, he said.
“What I would like to see is someone who actually understands the dynamics of the inner city. Maybe this brother might understand what’s going on in that neighborhood,” he said.
But for all the hoopla over Obama, one thing is clear: He can’t change everything.
“We have a black president,” Mr. Beckley said, “but I still have to go to work tomorrow.”