Washington, D.C.: Frenzied crowds await new president's inauguration

Sun-Star reporter takes in sights, sounds of capital.

01/20/2009 12:03 AM

01/20/2009 12:08 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the famous "I Have a Dream" speech line up directly with the steps to the Capitol Building where Barack Obama, the United States' first black president, will be sworn in today.

In the middle is the Reflecting Pool.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Washington, D.C., I spent my time walking the two miles from the first historical staircase to the other. Along the way, I saw scenes of hope, joy and renewal.

I started walking just after noon from my aunt's Georgetown condo to the Mall area. My cousin Tim and Aunt Gail came along.

We arrived about an hour later.

On Aug. 28, 1963, King delivered on the memorial steps perhaps the most memorable of his many memorable speeches.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,'" King said.

Just as we were about to venture closer to the steps, a police officer began ushering visitors away. We would have to settle for a couple of long-distance, barricade-riddled photos.

Soon we were walking along the edge of the frozen Reflecting Pool, quietly taking in the bustling scene around us.

The scene stood in stark contrast to the dense crowd at King's speech. Strangers laughed and shouted, while they snapped pictures for one another. Booming speakers and enormous televisions were replaying the concert that drew an estimated 300,000 people to the National Mall the day before.

On this day, people still sang and danced along with the music.

"We shall be free," performed by Garth Brooks, ricocheted through the open swath of land as we approached the end of the pool.

We paused to watch some of the concert on one of the 20 Jumbotrons for a few minutes. A small burst of cheers erupted across downtown each time the cameras shifted to Obama, much like they did on the day of the concert.

Obama, preceded by a long list of Hollywood and political powerhouses, spoke at the event.

"It is how this nation has overcome the greatest differences and the longest odds -- because there is no obstacle that can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change," he said of the diverse crowd of Americans in front of him.

Next along our walk came the World War II Memorial. There we walked along the Pacific side (the memorial is divided into two halves to maintain the line of vision between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol). I snapped a photo of my aunt and Tim at the pillar honoring Illinois' fallen where there was no line, but decided not to wait for a photo at the California pillar, which had a massive crowd around it.

Soon we were on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument. A large National Guard unit was gathering at the base of a hill to have a group photo taken.

A dozen or so tourists had gathered at the front of the group and were snapping photos as their own keepsakes.

Thousands of National Guard soldiers are on duty for the inauguration.

Guardsmen can be seen at nearly every street corner in the city and all of them are gracious to the millions of tourists on hand. At the monument, they asked the tourists to jump into their photo. I got a shot of my aunt and Tim in the third row.

Soon we were watching the Jumbotron again, this time near the Smithsonian Castle, about halfway through our journey to the Capitol.

Bruce Springsteen was on, singing his song "The Rising."

Written just after Sept. 11, 2001, his words still struck a chord on this day: "Come on up for the rising. Come on up for the rising tonight."

Midway through the song, the sun finally broke free from the clouds. It provided a welcome bit of warmth to the shivering, tensed bodies that had gathered.

Finally, my aunt said.

She had been to the concert yesterday, so made sure we stuck around the Jumbotron a while longer to watch the remarks of Martin Luther King III.

My aunt and Tim left me at this point, headed back to warmth and food at home. I continued on toward the Capitol building.

The scene was even more frenzied. Onlookers helped one another hop barricades to cross a closed street and others balanced on the metal edges to get photos of the building.

The sun was setting and the air was frigid, but the mood was light. The Capitol was bathed in light, American flags hanging everywhere.

Now the Jumbotrons were playing live video looking out from the top of the building to the Lincoln Memorial beyond, flashbulbs twinkling all down the way.

A man named Steven sold T-shirts nearby. They read: "Rosa Parks sat so Martin could march. Martin marched so Obama could run. Obama ran so our children could fly."

I journeyed back the opposite direction to the National Gallery of Art to write this story.

I found a serene courtyard with a beautiful fountain, "Cherubs Playing with a Lyre" by Pierre Legros I, in the center.

Several people stopped by and tossed quarters into the fountain -- an older couple, two young men, a Latino boy.

I wondered what they wished for. On my way out, I looked at the bottom of the water.

Which of those dreams had been realized and which had yet to come true?

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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