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A 44-Year Journey Ends on a Bus to D.C.

A group of students from the town of Selma, Ala., journey by bus overnight to experience the inauguration firsthand.Video by Mark Gail/The Washington Post Produced by AJ Chavar/washingtonpost.com

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By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The charter bus rolled all night, through the cities of Montgomery, Atlanta and Richmond, stopping only for bathroom breaks and an IHOP breakfast. A few riders watched movies and listened to music. Most slept the entire way.

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But yesterday afternoon, as the weary travelers rolled onto 14th Street, past the Holocaust Museum, the Washington Monument and the Mall, 18-year-old Darianne Allen began to cry.

She stared at all the buses, cars and people in the streets as her classmates pulled out cameras and pressed their faces to the glass.

"The moment just hit me," Allen said, looking at her mother and wiping away tears. "It's really real."

It was the culmination of a 16-hour journey, a grinding two-year campaign and at least four decades of struggle to turn the voting rights earned 44 years ago into something few thought imaginable. Fittingly, the journey for the students, parents and educators began with this simple prayer: "Jesus, we thank you for having the 44th president of the United States as a black African American."

Theirs was one of thousands of buses that have converged on Washington from across the nation to mark the start of Barack Obama's presidency. They all came for their own reasons, bringing their stories and their hopes to the nation's capital.

Selma, Ala., sent at least three buses. The city's name is seared in the American psyche because of what happened when peaceful marchers were brutally attacked on Bloody Sunday in 1965. The head wounds of John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, are still visible today.

It was Lewis who led more than 600 protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965. The marchers were headed to Montgomery, the state capital, in their campaign for voting rights. Footage of Alabama state troopers attacking the peaceful march helped quicken the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Today in Selma, the inauguration of Obama stands as a testament to what's possible when little people stand up. Locals contend that without the struggle for voting rights centered in their small city, there would be no Barack Obama.

The 40 students, parents and educators who left Selma High on the bus Sunday night carried with them the soaring hopes from Obama's election and the hard realities of their lives. Selma still wrestles with issues of equality, education and jobs. So much unfinished business remains from the civil rights years.

Denise Roy, who works at Alabama State University in Montgomery, says progress at home has been stalled by a lack of unity of purpose among black residents, who make up 70 percent of Selma's population.

"We are too easy to get complacent with the little bit we have," said Roy, 43, who is planning an anti-violence campaign in Selma.

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