Historic crowds were eager for place in history

A military honor guard marches during the inaugural parade for President  Obama on Tuesday. Crowds were so great they could hardly move from the swearing-in to see the parade.

Associated Press

A military honor guard marches during the inaugural parade for President Obama on Tuesday. Crowds were so great they could hardly move from the swearing-in to see the parade.

WASHINGTON — The moment Barack Obama finished the oath of office, becoming the first African-American president of the United States, Trudy Coleman raised her hands to the heavens and shouted, "Yes, we did!"

Her grandson, Cameron Jones, scuffed the frozen dirt with his sneaker. He was not exactly uninterested, but not enraptured, either. Earlier, when he had fussed about the cold, his grandmother had put her hands on his shoulder and told him they were witnessing history. He is 10.

"Hopefully, he understands what this means, and what this is all about," said Coleman, 53, who is black, and who was chaperoning her grandson's Boy Scout troop from Wilmington, Del. "And what this means for black people, and for their hopes and dreams, and people of all colors. This will open doors."

Millions of people from around the country converged on Washington Tuesday for Obama's inauguration, including an estimated 1.4-million who packed the National Mall to witness the swearing-in ceremony on giant TV screens arrayed from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, nearly 2 miles away.

Hispanics in coveralls, drowsy college students, old black couples and scores of young families — the jubilant crowds celebrated the political turnover, cheering the ascendancy of an administration they believe will offer an improvement in tone and substance over that of outgoing President George W. Bush, whose introduction Tuesday was met by jeers and cries of "Boooosh."

Holding a pink banner near the Capitol that said, "Obama lead us out of Iraq," Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the antiwar group Code Pink, recalled being arrested and dragged away for holding a similar banner during Bush's second inauguration.

Tuesday, passers-by praised her and took her picture. "Free speech is back!" she said.

Yet most of all, attendees said they felt they were witnessing the start of a new era.

"The color barriers are beginning to fade," said Kelly Earp, 27, of New York City, who volunteered for the campaign and wore a small U.S. flag tucked into her fleece headband.

Earp, who is white, said many Americans were stunned by Obama's election and don't believe America should have a black president, but "this is breaking down those walls, and leaves no room for them. They're staying at home today. And I hope that if they take away anything from this, it's that they're in the minority now."

As Lee Rosner and his wife wandered the mall before the ceremony, people kept stopping to ask for a photograph of him and the sign on his chest: From King to President, August 23, 1963 (to) January 20, 2009.

Rosner, 69, a research biologist from Arlington, Va., had driven down from Yale University to hear that famous Martin Luther King Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech back in 1963, delivered from the Lincoln Memorial at the other end of the mall from the Capitol. He wasn't about to miss Obama's inauguration.

"Ingrained in my brain, too," said Rosner, who is white. "These are wonderful bookends."

Despite temperatures in the 20s for most of the day and a bitter northwest wind, thousands of people began filling the Mall well before dawn. By 10 a.m., the U.S. Park Service closed each section of the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, forcing new arrivals ever farther back. People genially complied.

The day wasn't problem-free: Metro, the region's transit system, became overloaded early Tuesday morning, stranding thousands of people miles from the National Mall.

Thousands more who had tickets to see the inauguration from near the Capitol couldn't use them because they couldn't reach the security checkpoints. The crowds made it almost impossible to see both the inauguration and the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

But those who endured the long, cold day said it was worth it.

"It's hard to talk about Barack Obama without sounding cheesy," said Kati Irons, a librarian from Seattle. "But I think he represents a message for people in this country who weren't being heard. It's a message about empowering people, and it's a message we need. Here's someone saying, 'We can make a difference, and the only people who can make a difference is us, working together.' "

Irons is white and almost 40. She had never been involved in a campaign before this one.

"The dream is that we're a post-racial society," she said. "I don't think we're there yet. This is a sign that we can get there, and that it's worth fighting for."

Raycheal Proctor, 22, a recent Georgia Southern University graduate, said Obama's inauguration means to her that Americans saw past his color and chose him for his qualifications and ability to inspire. Her parents and 80-year-old aunt are still shocked at that. "But as a young black woman, it's huge," she said.

"It means that when me or my sisters or brothers walk into a room, we're not judged just on our color. We're judged more on what we can actually do. … This is a sign of things to come."

Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Historic crowds were eager for place in history 01/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 7:15am]

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