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The Inaugural Poet

Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry

Poet Elizabeth Alexander was 1 when her parents took her to the March on Washington. On Jan. 20, she will read at the swearing-in of the first African American U.S. president.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander was 1 when her parents took her to the March on Washington. On Jan. 20, she will read at the swearing-in of the first African American U.S. president. (By C.j. Gunther For The Washington Post)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

On Aug. 28, 1963, a young government lawyer and his wife pushed their 1-year-old daughter in a stroller from their home in Southwest Washington to the vast civil rights march on the Mall, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

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Next month, the little girl, Elizabeth Alexander, now 46, a prize-winning poet and professor of African American studies at Yale University, is scheduled to stand at the other end of the Mall before what will probably be an even bigger throng and read a poem at the inauguration of the nation's first African American president.

They are two moments in Washington history, more than four decades and about two miles apart, that on Jan. 20 will bracket a part of one poet's life, along with a chapter in the country's narrative.

"It was one of the iconic stories of my childhood," Alexander said yesterday of her attendance at the March on Washington. She said of her duty next month: "It will be hard, but it will be a privilege."

Alexander, who grew up in Washington and attended Sidwell Friends School, was named by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies as the poet to read at the swearing-in.

It is the first time that "poetry's old-fashioned praise," as Robert Frost called it, will be featured at the swearing-in since 1997.

"I am obviously profoundly honored and thrilled," she said. "Not only to have a chance to have some small part of this extraordinary moment in American history. . . . This incoming president of ours has shown in every act that words matter, that words carry meaning, that words carry power, that words are the medium with which we communicate across difference and that words have tremendous possibilities, and those possibilities are not empty."

Alexander will join soul singer Aretha Franklin, civil rights figure Joseph E. Lowery and classical musicians Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill on the program.

She will be only the fourth poet to read at a swearing-in, after Frost, who read at John F. Kennedy's in 1961, Maya Angelou, who read at Bill Clinton's in 1993, and Miller Williams, who read at Clinton's second inauguration in 1997, according to government officials.

And her connections to the city go back to that day in 1963.

"That's certainly been an important part of my own sense of what it means for all of us to be standing at various moments in history and taking into account what is possible, what is hopeful, what can be worked for," she said.

At the time, her father, Clifford, who later served as a presidential civil rights counsel and secretary of the Army and was a 1974 District mayoral candidate, was a lawyer in the Kennedy administration. He and his wife, Adele, decided they had to take their daughter to the march.

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