For Many: A Moment Not To Be Missed

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By Katherine Calos/Media General News Service
Published: January 19, 2009

RICHMOND, Va. — Kevin Burke grew up hearing his elders talk about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement.

Now his own moment of pride has come with the inauguration of Barack Obama. He plans to be among the millions on the National Mall on Tuesday.

“It’s something that people will be talking about for years,” said the 42-year-old Richmonder.

“This is a historical moment, the first time that an African-American was elected president. It could be the only time in my lifetime I will see this. . . . To have a leader in front to move, not just the black people, but the country in the direction it needs to move, is phenomenal.”

Burke has organized two busloads of people to go with him. They’re planning to leave at 4 a.m. tomorrow from Second Baptist Church on Broad Rock Road and have a permit to park in downtown Washington for the day. Participants range from parents taking children out of school to people in their 80s who “never thought it would happen in their lifetime,” he said.

“Most people are going just to say, ‘I was there.’ Especially our elderly, they don’t really care if they don’t see it. They just want to say, ‘I was there during this time.’ ”

This historic moment has led to unprecedented interest in the Obama inauguration. Crowd predictions range from 2 million to 5 million people.

The entire Mall area has been opened to inaugural viewers for the first time, and giant viewing screens will be set up, so people who don’t have official tickets can still see something.

Richmond-area residents are finding a variety of ways to get there for an inauguration program that begins at 10 a.m. and continues with several hours of music, prayer, speeches and a parade. Private vehicles won’t be allowed to cross the bridges from Virginia.

The McShin Foundation has organized a bus as part of its mission to re-integrate recovering alcoholics and drug users into the larger community. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said John Shinholser, president. “I can’t wait to see how they’ll react to this big inauguration. It’s all good.”

Linda McElroy decided to avoid the traffic by taking the train. On the day after Obama’s election, she bought round-trip Amtrak tickets for Jan. 20 for herself and her 9-year-old daughter, Bailey Simmons. She expects Obama’s inaugural address will be comparable to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “I want my daughter, years from now, when she watches Barack giving his speech, to say, ‘I was there.’ ”

Jason Walker received official tickets for himself and three of his children, ages 7 to 11. He was committed to go whether he got them or not. He has hotel reservations in Fredericksburg tonight and tickets tomorrow for the Virginia Railway Express commuter train to Washington.

Margaret Buchanan and Neil Ohlsson are taking daughter Emma, 11, to Arlington County to spend the night with relatives. They’ve ordered Metro passes. “Our backup plan is to walk in,” Buchanan said.

Marcia Dickinson, 71, and Al Simmons, 64, are spending the night with friends in Arlington and planning to walk. “I think Metro is going to be really crowded,” Simmons said. “If it’s only 4 1/2 to 5 miles, we can do it in two hours easy. If it’s not rainy, I’m thinking of it as an open-air carnival.” He said he’s looking forward to “all the camaraderie that will go with that walk.”

LaVern Jackson of Hopewell will get on the bus with children from a North Carolina school where her sister is the principal. They did the same thing when Bill Clinton was inaugurated.

“Seeing this from a kid’s point of view, it was really awesome,” Jackson said. “We’re psyched, they’re psyched. It’s going to be great.”

Buchanan views her trip as part of a “continuing civics lesson for her [daughter]. I’ve taken her to the polls with me. We canvassed for Obama. We were just there [in Washington], walking around the Capitol, seeing the preparations.”

She had a similar civics lesson when she was growing up in Northern Virginia. Her father took her to the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. “It was important to him that we be responsible voting citizens,” she said.

“I was a second-grader. Honestly, what I mostly remember is how cold it was and how crowded it was. That may be all my daughter remembers.”

Walker plans to make sure his children remember by getting each of them — Amber, 11; Alyssa, 10; and Nathaniel, 7 — to prepare a report on the event for their classmates at St. Catherine’s and St. Christopher’s schools. Angel, 3, will stay home with his wife, Monica.

“We will make it a competition to see how many different people from each state they can meet and ask why they think it’s important,” he said. “I have family members riding in on chartered buses from Ohio that will be there as well. We want them to get the gravity of the situation, to talk with people from Georgia or New York or Mississippi to understand that this is a big deal.

“I’m only 34. I remember hearing stories from my parents’ generation about the Martin Luther King March on Washington. This is another event in the same vein that I want my kids to capture.”

Simmons has lived six decades without feeling the need to attend an inauguration, but this year is different.

“When we went to the Richmond Coliseum when Obama came to town, I don’t think I had ever been in a crowd of black and white people who felt so much hope for one another,” he said.

“I just felt that we were looking back across a scarred four centuries and that maybe we could actually reach a point where this wound could begin to heal, or reach the next stage of healing. I was in awe of how good it felt to be in that crowd. That’s where the inauguration visit comes from me.

“I know if I’m lucky, I’ll see the back of someone’s head from a half-mile away. What I will be is in a crowd of 1.5 to 3 million people, all of whom have a special dream for our country in this moment, and I just want to share that dream.”

Katherine Calos is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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