A Massive Crowd Embraces the Moment

Massive crowds swarmed the National Mall on Tuesday to witness Barack Obama's inauguration as president. Video by AP
By David Nakamura and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

This was Barack Obama's day, and it was theirs, too: The people who had elected him, who had waited for hours, days, years, generations to take a spot on a cold morning on the Mall to witness the historic swearing-in.

The sun's rising glow illuminated a mass of humanity, a singing, celebrating and at times solemn sea of people wrapped in layers, head to toe, determined to claim a piece of history. As a brilliant orange hue rose over the U.S. Capitol, crowds poured onto the Mall to lay down sleeping bags and blankets, huddling together in fur coats and down parkas.

The throngs began to make their way while skies were still dark, creating a singular rush hour whose commuting crowds shared a common destination. Here they came, filling first the eastern expanse of America's front lawn, all the way to the Washington Monument, then farther west to the Lincoln Memorial, the landmarks that drew a line back to Obama's predecessors.

Approximately 2 million gathered on the Mall and around the Capitol, according to an early estimate by a senior security official speaking on background. Tens of thousands more crowded along the parade route.

Small American flags, about 300,000 distributed by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, rose above countless wool stocking caps to create a sea of red, white and blue. It did not matter that most people had no ticket and would watch Obama recite the 37-word oath of office on a Jumbotron screen. To simply be here was the thing, on the Mall, on this day, no matter how difficult it was to get here. They endured crowded commutes on the subway, uncomfortable bus rides from the hinterlands, endless campaign days walking door-to-door, generational struggles for acceptance and equality.

Some in the crowd said they had been drawn to bear witness to other moments of recent history -- the inaugurations of former presidents George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, for example, or the lying-in-state of Ronald Reagan in 2004. But for many, many others -- black, white, Hispanic and Asian; old and young; immigrant and native-born -- this moment resonated in a unique way.

The mood was overwhelming -- but not uniformly -- festive: For every mass of revelers chanting "Yes, we can!" or "O-ba-ma!" there was a parent quietly teaching a child, or a grown son or daughter remembering those who are gone.

"This is an auspicious occasion, and I wanted my son to experience it. Plus, my father just passed away," said Erika Edwards, 40, of Harlem, who came to Washington with her son, 5-year-old Michael, a day after her father's funeral.

"He would want you to be here," observed 39-year-old Caroline Jones of Philadelphia, sitting nearby, who overheard Edwards as they rode an Orange Line train from New Carrollton. Edwards nodded and smiled.

Outside a checkpoint for ceremony ticketholders at Fifth and C streets NW, Irma Brown-Williams, 66, a retired high school teacher from Tuskegee, Ala., stood apart from about 300 revelers. She had pinned black-and-white photos of her mother, father and siblings, all deceased, to her ankle-length coat.

"I'm here for them," Brown-Williams said. "They could not be here, so I brought them with me."

Nearby, a small group of Howard University students began singing to pass the time. As the music eventually segu├ęd to the "Star-Spangled Banner" and the African American anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," others joined in, thrusting black, brown and white fists into the air.

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