A Vast, Diverse Sea of Humanity Celebrates the Dawn of an Era

By Michael E. Ruane, Nikita Stewart and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, people stood gazing toward the carpet of humanity that was gathered in the distance, before the cream-colored inauguration platform at the U.S. Capitol.

Dwyan Turner West, a 36-year-old tech manager for the Army, listened quietly to the loudspeakers as Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation's 44th president. West, an African American, stepped to the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, bowed his head, clasped his hands and saluted.

His angular face was taut, his eyes blinking. At the conclusion, he raised his right fist in the air, then both fists. A stranger, a white man, leaned into his ear and said, "Welcome to the new America."

Turner West shook his head and smiled. "We did it," he said. "We finally did it. It's here."

That was the sentiment of many of those who braved the cold and the crowds and waited for hours yesterday to witness Obama's elevation to power and to hear his first words as commander in chief.

By 12:04 p.m., when Obama raised his hand to take the oath under a pale winter sky, their numbers had swollen to well over a million, perhaps eclipsing the record 1.2 million set for Lyndon Johnson's inauguration 44 years ago. One official estimated that 1.8 million came to the Mall and the inaugural parade.

People wept, danced, sang and kissed.

The crowds began arriving at the Mall well before sunrise. They came from across the country, by all means of transportation. Some staked out spots hours in advance on the Mall or along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route.

It was a day of contrasts. This inauguration had the tightest security ever, with sharpshooters and the National Guard very much in sight, and yet Obama and his wife got out of their limousine -- twice -- and walked a good stretch of the parade route. More bridges and roads were closed to private vehicles than ever, and yet people got in and out of town relatively smoothly -- thanks largely to Metro, which set a ridership record.

Considering the size of the crowd and the security challenges it presented, the day went off without major problems, amid an atmosphere of jubilation.

The swearing-in ceremony climaxed four days of celebrations, including a whistle-stop train trip to Washington from Philadelphia, a concert on the Mall and a national initiative of community service. It came after months of anticipation and mad scrambles for tickets to the swearing-in and parade. Organizers had said it would be a stupendous event, and it was.

Ella Mae Johnson, 105, from Cleveland, was there on the Mall, wrapped in a sky-blue sleeping bag and propped up in her wheelchair by her nurse. "I intended to come, and I am glad I came," she said.

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