Total Pageviews

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Barack Obama's Inaugural: "History Paints No Other Picture"



Washington, D.C. The capital of the United States of America, intellectual capital of the Free World.

January 20th, 2009 was a special day, an understatement if there ever was one. It was one of those special moments in history. The first time a black family moved into the White House, who wasn't there to clean up or cook.

NOVEMBER 5, 2008:
The chronicle to witness one of the most important events in American history began a couple of months ago, when I starting floating a wild idea to actually GO to the inauguration. Many of our Douglass alumni and Riverview neighbors wanted to go and just be there in person, but trying to do a lot of things in this economy is difficult, if not impossible, especially traveling. I thought the same thing as many African-Americans for a few days after the inauguration; just think.. the 1st Black President. How would it be like to be there, in person, in the flesh.. seeing it, experiencing it.. breathing the same air, so to speak.

And then, I thought of the broader picture. African-Americans have a history as long and difficult as this country's history itself. I started thinking about all the black folk who fought the big fight for us to get to this point. Thoughts flooded my mind about fire hoses, busted-up voter registration drives, "white" and "colored" water fountains. All of those happened in our collective memories.. worse things happened just years before that. And then, there was just the harrassment.. "no, you can't do this.. no, you can't do that." It was always "NO, YOU CAN'T."

But one candidate for President told us during his campaign, we can overcome obstacles. HIS theme was "Yes.. we CAN," and he just happened to be a Black man. Although he was younger than I was, his words sounded inspirational, as if history was speaking to all of us right now. That man who just happened to be Black, had just overcome his own obstacles to be elected to the highest office in the Free World. It was at that moment, I decided that I was going to this inauguration, no matter how much it cost, and no matter the personal sacrifice. No sacrifice I could ever make in my life, would equal the sacrifices other African-Americans made years ago, just so we could all get to this moment in history.

Of all the events I felt privileged to attend, only one stood out in my mind.. I wanted to be there to hear Barack Obama say the words "Yes I do.. so help me God." That moment would be the one always frozen in time. The U.S. Constitution says, every four years, the duly elected president-designate has to be in sworn in at 12 noon.. I researched constitution scholars, and it turns out, the person who wins the election automatically becomes President at 12 Noon every four years, where there is a ceremony or not.

But this wouldn't be an ordinary ceremony. American politics and American history would not permit this man to just be automatically ushered into office. This ceremony would be special.

NOVEMBER 14, 2008:
I applied for tickets to the inauguration ceremony on the U.S. Capitol steps on January 20th. The only way to get tickets was through my U.S. Senator or U.S. House Representative. Never thought of actually RECEIVING them.. so many people around the country had applied for tickets, I never had a hope of getting one of those coveted historical mementos. Imagine my surprise when I got an email from U.S. 3rd District Congressman Zach Wamp's office from Tennessee, that I would be getting inaugural tickets from them. I was profoundly shocked when I received a phone call from Tennessee's U.S. Senator Bob Corker's office that I would be getting tickets from that office, too.

Shock.. turned to awe at that point.

My late mother had a wonderful friend that she and her sisters knew from college at the Tennessee A & I State University (now Tennessee State) in Nashville.. she lives just outside Washington, D.C., her husband having retired from the U.S. Department of Transportation offices near Capitol Hill. Ernest Hawkins knew every in and out of the Capitol District, and he promised to personally get me as close to the events as possible.

Thousands of people had gotten the same message I did: the inauguration tickets have to be picked up Monday, January 19th, in the Congressman's or Senator's office. I made a spirited trip up I-81 in Virginia to Washington, and battled a 6-inch snowfall between Bristol and Roanoke to boot.

JANUARY 19, 2009:
9:15 AM -
I never dreamed the trip into the District, as it's called, would be so easy. Ernest Hawkins, my "chauffeur" lives out Pennsylvania Avenue on the other side of Andrews Air Force Base. I was getting antsy, and as the hours approached on the schedule to pick up the tickets, I grew more nervous, thinking the Capitol District would be blocked up, streets closed. I thought I would be walking for miles.

1:30 PM -
Mr. Hawkins delivered on the promise to get me in as close as possible, and did he ever. We found no streets blocked off at all. We actually drove right up to the U.S. Capitol, where crowds had formed to get into the Senate and House office buildings. Those lines were incredibly long, born by the necessity of metal detectors and screening at the buildings' front entrances.

The Everett Dirksen Senate Office Building was my first stop, the Washington office of Tennessee U.S. Senator Bob Corker. I made my way up to his office, showed my I.D. and picked up the admission ticket to history.

4:10 PM -
My next trek was the Longworth Building, one of many office complexes, housing the offices of many of our U.S. Representatives. My destination was Zach Wamp, Tennessee 3rd District Congressman, of which I had originally thought, well if I can't get tickets through Senator Corker's office, I might through Congressman Wamp's.

Thousands of ordinary citizens milling around, joking, having a good time, me included. It was a time that we all shared a common bond, where anybody could become a professional camera person. If I wanted to document my moment in history, there were plenty of ordinary citizens, a.k.a. camera people, that were only too willing to take my camera and record the moment, if I would return the favor.

4:55 PM -
After 45 minutes of standing in the wrong line at the wrong building (thanks to a D.C. cop too busy to really help me), it was over to the Longworth Building for U.S. House members. I finally got in the right line there with NewsChannel 9 colleague Tanya Mendis and a few other Chattanooga people. As the hour of closing the building approached, many Congress members came out and got their constituents to bring them inside to make sure they got their tickets, and Congressman Wamp came out and got us.


The reception in his office was in short, a family reunion, whose members all had tickets to history. The congressman's office had refreshments with picture-taking opportunities with Chattanooga neighors and friends, among them former City Judge Walter Williams, Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck, Chattanooga councilman Leamon Pierce, and current Tennessee State Representative Joanne Favors of Chattanooga, who told me to remind the folks in Kingsport to get Nathan Vaughn back into politics. Rep. Favors, a personal friend of Vaughn's, told me to convey the message that he was the victim of racism and that his Vaughn's leadership is still needed in Nashville. She said the Democrats' denial of the Republicans' attempted takeover of the State Senate failed, because of, among other things, actions taken to oust Vaughn from office; his other Democratic colleagues were angry about the racism directed by state Republicans towards Vaughn, in an spirited effort to take over the Tennessee Legislature. "Pure dirty politics, with a racial edge," she told me. "We need him back, so folks in Kingsport, keep the fires going."

I promised to convey the message to folks in Riverview and South Central Kingsport.

10:20 PM -
The day ended, with me going to bed early, because I wanted a head start on getting in line at the Blue Gate on Inauguration morning. THAT decision was one of the best I made the entire trip.

3:05 AM -
Mr. Hawkins knocked on my bedroom door, and I sat there on the edge of the bed for about 15 minutes, trying to decide if I "really want to do this." Home was only 9 hours distant.

3:40 PM -
After lining myself with insulating material, again thinking I would be walking for miles.. fooled again. We drove to within 4 blocks of the U.S. Capitol. Take that terrorists.. this is MY country. I got in line at the Blue Gate outside the Capitol grounds at 4:15 AM, temperature 21 degrees. I was about 8 or 9 people from the front of the line, which stretched about 200 feet across. The crowd at that time, about 2,000 people, were happy, jovial, getting songs started. The favorites were "Na-na-na na.. Hey, hey, hey.. Goodbye," (an obvious tribute to George Bush), "You've Got A Friend" (James Taylor), and anything Motown. I overheard one of the black ladies standing next to me, talking on her cellphone, referring to our group as "The American Idol" line. She'd had enough when they broke into "My Girl."

5:05 AM-
Glance over my shoulder. The crowd, now about 8,000 or 9,000 according to the TSA people, who've just arrived with their security screening stuff and metal detectors. Individual space was drawing up really fast, and unknown, strange-looking people bumping into me, touching me. Temperature still 21 degrees.

6:15 AM-
Just a small glimmer of sunlight, and the TV helicopters started buzzing the crowd, especially one from WUSA-TV. Crowd now estimated between 15,000 and 20,000, cannot see them around the street corners. Temperature now 20 degrees, I am not feeling my toes, and the shawl is not staying over my mouth and nose like it's supposed to.

7:15 AM-
The sun is up, but the temperature isn't. 20 degrees, my toes are numb, even with the foot warmers. The songs continued, and so did the shivering. The Washington Post says the crowd at the Blue Gate at 7 AM was about 30,000.

8:30 AM-
The TSA security people announced they were opening the gates early, because there were too many people to guarantee that everybody would get in, in time. Everybody stood up, pressed tightly together, all at the ready. Thoughts went through my mind of stampeding people at a Wal-Mart Christmas sale. All of a sudden, as one part of the fence opened slightly to permit a single-file line, there was a surge to that direction. Small, baby steps were the only way to move. Then, another area of the fence opened, and my group surged in that direction. Eventually, that was the way that got me to the screening with metal detectors.

8:40 AM-
The TSA agent ran the hand-held metal detector over me, and asked me why I had clear adhesive tape around my camera. I told him I had dropped it so many times, tape is the only thing holding it together. He just grinned and passed me through.

8:55 AM -
I made it around into the Blue area, which would be standing room only. It was located on the side of Capitol Hill, to the right as you're looking at it, right behind the Orange area, whose privileged folks were allowed seats to enjoy the Inauguration. My group questioned who those people had to know to get seats. We later found out, those "privileged" folks included Denzel Washington, Kobe Bryant, Steven Spielberg, Muhammad Ali and his wife, and a host of other celebrities.

9:35 AM -
Again, I'm about eight or nine people back from the barrier that separates the Blue from the Orange sections. Not believing I've spent the past six hours standing. Temperature now up to 23 degrees.

Again, folks start taking up available breathing space. Thank God for Irish Spring. Among the nearest places I could hear were Austin, Texas.. Chicago.. Portland, Oregon.. Greenville, Alabama (these Crimson Tide folks chided me on my Tennessee Big Orange jacket).. Flagstaff, Arizona. These Blue Section people are getting pretty rowdy. They were more "blue-collar" than blue area, very Democrat, and not afraid to express themselves and their political beliefs.. they had made their politics known by voting, and now they let it be known in no uncertain terms that their physical voices would be heard THIS election. America is the greatest country on Earth.

10:25 AM -
The U.S. Marine Band starts playing, and you can really tell the ex-soldiers in the crowd. Theirs were the care-worn faces, wrinkled with time, whose eyes glazed over, hearing "America the Beautiful" and the other patriotic songs. Those guys reminded me how proud I was to be an American, about to witness an historic moment.

11:10 AM -
My Blue Section group wasted no time, letting the rest of America know they were loyal Democrats. Each time a recognizable face arrived on the Jumbotron, their political leanings were known to the arrivals, because we were within earshot distance of them. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy arrived to chants of "Teddie, Teddie, Teddie" and he graciously acknowledged our area with a nod and waves. It was a magical moment.

Demoratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was also lauded with loud applause and whoops. So was Tennessee Favorite Son Al Gore, Junior and his wife Tipper. I even got slapped on the back by folks near me, because of my Tennessee Football "Big Orange" jacket, still providing a measure of warmth, by the way. Howard Dean acknowledged our Blue Area group's "YEE-awe" growl from his presidential campaign.

11:31 AM -
A large ovation came at the announcement of the arrival of former President Bill Clinton and his wife, presidential candidate and Secretary of State designee Hillary Clinton. I overhead behind me a loud "We still love you!" Each view of the Clintons produced enthusiatic yells and whoops from our group.

The arrival of Vice President Dick Cheney in a wheelchair did not escape the notice of the Blue Group. The V-P reportedly pulled a muscle while moving boxes and was told to stay off his feet for a few days. Overheard in my group: "Next time, spend the money and get Mayflower."

As guests and dignitaries were announced, straining to hear wasn't necessary. Each word from the announcer was as crisp and clear as the morning air, which at 28 degrees, had not risen that much since the early morning.

11:45 AM -
Finally, the arrivals were over. Everyone is in place. Dignitaries seated, with smiles on their faces, perhaps produced by the nip in the air, but probably by the pomp and circumstance of the occasion. The 2009 Presidential Inauguration began with a welcome flourish, people in predictable nervousness, as the results of hours of standing in long lines for hours earlier, and the prior day finally came to an end. This was the event we had all waited for, planned for, and anticipated for weeks and months prior. "Please," one white woman overheard behind me, "let's get this going." A white man standing near me was overhead to say, "let's get this man sworn in."

Hostess Dianne Feinstein produced a loud chuckle when she told the audience to "please be seated" at the end of the invocation, given by Dr. Rick Warren, in that our Blue Area group, all 30-thousand strong, had been standing the whole time. Given the uproar over his selection as Minister of the Invocation, the conflicts proved unnecessary. Dr. Warren spoke the Word with conviction and determination, and his prayer was well received. There's only one way to Preach the Gospel, and for men of God, it's the Right way.

As Senator Joe Biden was sworn into office by John Paul Stevens, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the mood in the air became electric. I heard someone behind me say "C'mon.. let's get this man in office." As mentioned earlier, Mr. Obama would have become President anyway; the person with the most delegates in the Electoral College is AUTOMATICALLY President at the first stroke of Noon on January 20th, every four years. The ceremony, the pagentry, the hoopla.. all mere formalities, ceremoniously performed with the pomp and circumstance the event calls for. The automatic ascension to office is thought to have been a war-time measure, designed to protect a President-elect, should an outside ceremony not be possible.

11:53 AM -
After a number from four of classical music's icons, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill, pianist Gabriela Montero, and violinist Itzhak Perlman, the moment arrives for the swearing in of the president-elect.

The swearing-in of 47-year-old Barack Obama began simple enough as Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts, presiding over his first Presidential swearing-in, started reciting the oath Obama was to repeat, a few words at a time. That's when the program went slightly left of center.

"I, Barack Hussein Obama," began Roberts.

"I, Barack," said Obama, and before he could continue, Roberts said, "do solemnly swear."

Obama: "I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear"

Roberts: "That I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully...

Obama: "that I will execute..."

Before he could continue, Roberts said: "faithfully execute the office of president of the United States..."

Obama: "The office of president of the United States faithfully..."

At that point, Roberts got back on course, leading as Obama followed with "and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

"So help you God?" asked Roberts.

"So help me God."

As written, the official swearing-in speech begins: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States...." But Roberts said, "I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully." When Obama stumbled in repeating the line, it was because he had already memorized the passage exactly, and he knew what was supposed to be recited by the Chief Justice.

Of course, members of the Blue Area caught the error, and a few mumbles were heard, but none out of the ordinary. Once the words "so help me God" were sounded by Mr. Obama, the mystery was over. Folks in my area, black and white, rich and poor, old and young, and from every socio-economic background were overheard sniffing, and seen either crying or holding back the tears. The long struggle for black-white equality in America had indeed, crossed a threshhold with one big giant leap.

12:03 AM -
47-year-old Barack Hussein Obama is the first president of African-American descent in the history of the United States of America. It was a sight to behold. I felt so honored and humbled, especially since reports got back to us that many Blue Group ticket holders were later denied access because security people felt they had reached the maximum number of people to get in. Sometimes, it pays to be early.



12:40 PM -
As I left, I was lucky enough to capture a picture of the presidential helicopter with the Bush family leaving the U.S. Capitol, and the White House for the last time after the ceremony. At first, I felt a twinge of resentment to the one president whose approval rating at this point, is the lowest of any president in history, who never seemed to know that Black folk existed. Almost immediately, I softened, realizing that sometimes, old thinking is based on old habits, that are hard to break. As much as friends and neighbors in Riverview and black communities across the country disagreed with his policies that largely ignored the needs of African-Americans, I do respect the man for sticking with his principles. His helicopter circled the Capitol Rotunda once, then headed east to Andrews Air Force Base for the Bush trip to their new home in Texas.

3 PM-
After buying souvenirs, thanking my wonderful hosts and getting ready to head home, I heard on the CBS coverage that Senator Ted Kennedy had suffered a seizure just minutes after we had seen on in the cold afternoon air. Said a silent prayer for this majestic man from the one political family considered a friend to African-Americans.


3:45 PM-
I'm on the way back down I-81 to Tennessee. Before the mandatory stop at 9:55 PM in Bristol for 3 gallons of Pal's Peachy Tea, I have a ton of road salt to give back to Smyth County, Virginia, to go with the 6 inches of snow they couldn't get off the Intertate fast enough, on the way TO Washington.

Some Riverview folk say, they started thinking about "The Jeffersons" and "moving on up to the big time" when Barack Obama won the nation's popular vote to become President. Humorous references instructed us to try to avoid that, because that's what would be expected. All of that was replaced by the optimism of a new president, one who identifies with us in Riverview and South Central Kingsport, because he IS one of us. For my part, I will never forget the humbling experience of seeing history happen right before my eyes.

January 20, 2009.. a day to cherish. It is a day to live in our hearts and minds in Riverview, South Central and indeed ALL of Kingsport. Let the renewed challenge from the president of ALL our country, be bonded with three words that have always been there, but now, have inspired meaning: