By Steve Hendrix and Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 19, 2009
Rap fans danced to country music, elderly white men high-fived with young African Americans and tears mixed with laughter as a varied lineup of A-list stars and an equally diverse crowd jammed the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate the nation and its historic president-elect yesterday.
By some estimates, more than 400,000 people filled the western end of the Mall for the official start of a three-day jubilee of prayers, parades and parties. They endured long security lines and chilly weather for a two-hour salute to the man who will be America's first black president and to the nation that elected Barack Obama to the White House despite centuries of racial divisiveness.
"What a feeling this is! Good God, yes!" Mariela Jesse, a special education teacher from New York, shouted as Obama was introduced, her hands raised in the air.
Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Garth Brooks took the stage, but no one remotely touched the star power of one guest: Every time the Jumbotrons flashed a shot of the president-elect, a thunderous roar erupted from the farthest reaches of the crowd.
"We are all in this together," said actor Denzel Washington, adding that that is why the ceremony name was "three simple words: We Are One."
If the event served as a test run for what is expected to be a record crowd for tomorrow's inauguration, the lesson was simple: Arrive early. Traffic on some roads approached gridlock. But the day's biggest headaches were long delays at security checkpoints, and some people never made it in.
Today's events will center on service projects to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day and are not expected to strain traffic and security. But officials and visitors alike are bracing for tomorrow's swearing-in ceremony and parade and the unprecedented crowds expected to come to witness the moment when Obama becomes the 44th president.
As Obama took the stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial, sharpshooters were visible on the roof. He told the crowd that he remains optimistic about the nation's future despite the challenges posed by war and economic crisis.
"And yet, as I stand here tonight, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between," he said. "It is you -- Americans of every race and region and station -- who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there. . . .
"You proved once more that people who love this country can change it. And as I prepare to assume the presidency, yours are the voices I will take with me every day I walk into that Oval Office -- the voices of men and women who have different stories but hold common hopes. Who ask only for what was promised us as Americans: that we might make of our lives what we will and see our children climb higher than we did."
Obama, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and their families sat to the side of the stage, behind a screen of protective glass. Obama and his wife, Michelle, bobbed their heads in time with the rhythm of the music.
The crowd was jubilant and orderly, but its sheer size had strained agents' screening effort.
Lines to clear security moved briskly during the morning and early afternoon. By 1:30 p.m., however, the five checkpoints manned by Border Patrol agents and other security personnel were overwhelmed, and lines stretched for blocks. Several thousand people were still waiting to enter when the Obamas walked down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to start the show.
Frustrated visitors complained of confusion and conflicting instructions as officials began closing checkpoints about 2:30. In some cases, people waiting at one entrance were sent to another checkpoint only to find that one closed as well.
"Somebody should explain why they're not letting us in," said Susan Hussar of Falls Church, who arrived at the 17th Street and Independence Avenue entrance at 3 p.m. She was denied entry even though she could see open space inside the secure area. "People are coming out, but they won't let people in."
U.S. Park Police Chief Sal Lauro said officials decided to close the area around the Reflecting Pool before the crowding became dangerous.
"It was starting to get to the point where we thought it was getting unsafe," Lauro said. Officers asked permission to shut checkpoints as the areas filled, he said.
But Lauro denied that there was disorganization.
"I don't know how much more organized we could have been," he said. "We had officers out there directing crowds as best we could."
Emergency medical personnel took 16 people to hospitals, according to police. Most had minor problems related to falls and other medical conditions. One man was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack.
At times, the multitudes seemed to dance as one, Americans from every corner of the country, of every generation.
Stephen Sherman danced wearing the jacket of his World War II uniform. Sherman, who grew up in an almost all-white town in Colorado, asked family and friends to give him only money on his recent 88th birthday so he could fund his dream: going to Obama's inauguration.
"I still got a mean dance," he said in between taking photos with dozens of new friends.
The Lincoln Memorial's long history as a venue that mixes politics and music was on the minds of many in the audience. A group of women from southern Virginia wore "I Have a Dream" T-shirts marking King's historic address from these steps and the concert that proceeded it.
When three eighth-graders from Ithaca, N.Y., passed Constitution Hall, their history teacher would have been delighted to hear them recall a recent class lesson: It was here that contralto Marian Anderson was forbidden to perform in 1939 because she was African American. So she performed instead for an adoring crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, one of the defining gatherings of the civil rights movement.
"Talk about progress," Sydney Derful, 13, said of the appearance on that same spot of the future first African American president. "It really links those two things together."
Actress and singer Queen Latifah made Sydney's point during a brief tribute to Anderson during the performance. "This afternoon, we are celebrating not just the inauguration of a new president, but the ongoing journey of America."
Clancy Sullivan, 60, was thinking of history as she sat in a lawn chair and recalled watching King's speech as a nursing student in Baltimore.
"I think the dream has come true," Sullivan said.
Staff writers Paul Schwartzman, Mary Beth Sheridan, Michael Birnbaum, Michael Alison Chandler, Dan Morse, Theola Labbé-DeBose, John Kelly, David Betancourt and Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.