By Michael Winship
The image from Barack Obama’s inauguration that will stay with me forever is people walking. Walking from wherever they lived or were staying in Washington, DC. And all headed for the exact same place.
In the hours before dawn on January 20th, they already were moving down Connecticut Avenue outside my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment: groups of two and three and four or more; some wearing backpacks and carrying signs, quietly converging on the National Mall.
For many, shoe leather was a familiar form of protest. For years, they had walked or marched to speak out against bigotry, poverty and hunger; against violations of human rights; against wars in Vietnam and Iraq. They had marched on the Pentagon and from Selma to Montgomery, but this time they were putting one foot before the other in celebration.
I had taken Amtrak down from New York City two days before. Among the passengers, a jumble of different languages but in almost every conversation, the name, “Barack Obama,” clear as a bell.
The train was full, and then packed as we left Baltimore, following the same route Obama’s whistlestop tour had taken the day before, jammed with visitors on their way to DC. A schoolteacher from Missouri took advantage of the short train ride to talk to her students about A. Philip Randolph, the African American labor and civil rights leader who organized African American sleeping car porters in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.
She told me she had planned her trip in October. “When I saw those 100,000 people at the Obama rally in St. Louis, I thought, ‘This is a done deal,’” she said. “’I’d better make my reservations.’” She announced to her fellow faculty she’d be taking an extra day or two off after Martin Luther King’s Birthday. “One of them said, ‘That’s not a real holiday.’ I didn’t say a word. She was not going to spoil my Obama moment.”
That afternoon, we trekked to the Mall for the afternoon “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial, 17th Street lined with vendors peddling buttons, posters, hats, hand warmers and everything but Barack Obama Dessert Topping (there were Obama perfumes and air fresheners). The hundreds of thousands who came to see Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Pete Seeger and James Taylor, among others, were just a foreshadowing of the millions who would arrive on Tuesday.
So, too, were the friendliness and high spirits of the crowd, despite the cold, but often tested by a lack of coordination among the various police and security forces on hand. They seemed to know how to get people where they wanted to go but not how to cope once it was time to for everyone to head home. It was an all too familiar story – there was no exit strategy.
Monday was a day of parties and events, and already, trying to get from point A to point B in downtown DC was a challenge made nearly insurmountable by flying roadblocks, unloading trucks and the tendency of tourists to leap out of cars, blocking intersections to take pictures of the Capitol – using the cameras of every passenger, one at a time.
At the three House of Representatives office buildings, shivering people lined up by the hundreds as it seemed every single Congressman or state delegation had simultaneously scheduled receptions. Once you got inside, at moments the scene was just a few degrees of separation from that party after Andrew Jackson’s 1825 inauguration when voters trashed the White House until they moved the spiked punch to the front lawn, setting a standard for Beltway bacchanalia only surpassed when the Redskins play a home game.
But Tuesday morning, everything and everyone came together and it was wondrous to behold. The predicted day of overcast gave way to bright sunshine. On every street people walked and walked until they reached the Mall and filled it to maximum capacity with anticipation. I have been in massive demonstrations there since the Vietnam moratorium in 1969, and none of them could compare. In the words of one little girl, it was bigger than Six Flags.
Yes, there were too many official standing room tickets with room for too few people (I was one of those with a ticket who couldn’t get in) and yes, trying to exit the city via rail that afternoon was an experience I wouldn’t wish on a Fox News analyst. (Again, no exit strategy – at Union Station, hundreds were haphazardly herded cheek by jowl into a far too narrow passageway and slowly, crushingly shoved through a single narrow exit. I finally popped through like a grape, just in time to catch my train.)
Still, it was worth it. For the ceremony, I wound up with folks at an open house in an office building that overlooked the crowds and the north side of the Capitol. We saw most of it on TV sets but with our own eyes caught glimpses from the balcony of the motorcade heading up the Hill, the cannons firing their 21-gun salute, the helicopter carrying the Bushes away (some of the people near me took off their shoes and faked a toss in the chopper’s general direction).
Whether you voted for or against President Obama, you couldn’t help but be caught up by the display of spirit, support and yes, patriotism. The gathered millions were inspired by each act of the ceremony, through Aretha and Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma and poet Elizabeth Alexander and civil rights veteran Joseph Lowery, paraphrasing the late, great bluesman Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White Blues.”
And the speech, of course. John F. Harris wrote in Politico, “With one swift stroke—just 18 minutes of words, delivered with a stern tone and a steel gaze—Barack Hussein Obama sliced through the usual clutter and ambiguities of American politics and revealed what it looks like when history turns on a pivot.”
There will be disappointments – big ones, perhaps – there will be mistakes and missteps, there will be times when the actions of this new President may infuriate as often as inspire. And the problems we face are daunting.
But on Inauguration Day, as I saw those hundreds of thousands making their way to see the swearing-in, walking and rejoicing in that moment, I thought of Sister Pollard, the older woman of whom Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke, who walked to and from work every day during the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.
My feet are tired, she said, “but my soul is rested.”
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.