“An occasion I wouldn’t miss for the world”

Manick Rajendran

An estimated two million braved the winter cold to be at the same spot where history had happened.

The thermometer showed minus 13{+o} C when I woke up at 6 a.m. The Inauguration itinerary had noted that they will close all security points at 9 a.m. So there was time.

“Really chithappa?” my niece asked me as she turned the TV on to CNN. “We better leave as soon as we can. Look at those crowds!”

She was the only brave soul at my sis-in-law’s place (where I had stayed the previous night) who had volunteered to come with me.

In August of 1963, on a warm balmy day, about a quarter of a million people heeded the call to March on Washington and proceeded to the gathering point in Washington D.C. by the towering spire of the Washington Monument. They would then march to the Lincoln Memorial a mile away, with their backs to Capitol Hill and listen in rapt attention to the speakers who would be giving voice to the anguish they had been living through. The winds across the open space and the reflecting pool would distort what little decibel strength the microphone system would help deliver. But it would not matter to the crowd. They would wait for John Lewis, Dr. King and others to speak. They would applaud and cheer whenever they hear strong and passionate words. They would hear the speakers utter words of importance that will have an effect on the Kennedy Administration. They would know that they are fighting for their civil rights. They would know that theirs is a nationwide struggle for jobs and freedom. They would express through their hearts and souls, with no guarantees that it will create any change.

They would not have known at that time that millions of Americans, black and white, will be watching the march and rally on TV. They would not have known then that the dignity, strength and character they would exhibit would transform the country to enact the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act within the next two years. They would not have known then that the hopeful looks on their faces would inspire Dr. King to step over his seven-minute limit of a prepared speech to verbalise on behalf of struggling souls of oppressed people everywhere. To deliver those immortal words “I have a dream” that will resonate through generations, across geography to all human beings across time. Soul-stirring words backed by the other leaders on the stage leading to a crescendo of affirmation — “Free at last!”

Forty five years later, we are now a nation of achievers. Dreams and aspirations have translated into policies and guarantees. We live in a vastly different world. An estimated two million of us are now going to brave the winter cold and be at the same spot where history had happened. I would not miss it for the world!

Toe and hand warmers in place, heavily booted, several layers of clothes on, map in back pocket, energy bars in one of the front pockets, a bottle of water on the other, some cash in another pocket, driver’s license, a camera and a video cam strung over the neck, we were ready. Nivvi and I were dropped off at the local Metro station at about the same temperature we woke up to. It then took us about 40 minutes to be able to get through the turnstiles using the commemorative daily pass that my sis-in-law had so thoughtfully bought for us the previous day.

There were smiling faces all around, making way for more of those on the platform to come aboard. No need for Japan’s Shinkansen locomotive-style people-packing help. Pretty soon we realised how planning could be so different from what actually happens. At 8.40 a.m., we were still riding the Metro watching in dismay as the train rode past L’Enfant station without stopping. There goes my carefully architected plan to be strategically situated midway between the Monument and the Capitol! Anyway, at least I will still be able to make it to the south side of the National Mall (the open 1.9 mile strip between the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial) so that the sun will be on my back to enable me to take good pictures.

Waterfront Station was crowded when we got off. Walking towards the Mall, the crowd started getting thicker with people walking in all directions until finally on 14th street, one could only face West and attempt to move a foot at a time, towards what destination, no one knew. The smiles around us persisted and very soon all we could see was the skies above us and government buildings floating by passively. It was fascinating to watch the lone city-jet high above us trying to make “O” with his smoke flume. At about 10a.m., we caught a glimpse of the Monument, but still did not have a clue as to what lay ahead. A few hundred yards later, a spectacular sight sprung into view as the crowd began to descend on a slope towards the obelisk, giving us a perfect view of where we could have been if we were here at 4 a.m.! Thousands of human beings in bright colours, all looking in one direction. Only this time, they were all looking towards the Capitol where Dr. King’s dream of his children not being judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character, will come to pass at exactly noon Eastern Standard Time.

We finally moved en masse towards one end of the slope facing the Monument from the East and what a treat it was to take pictures. One could not go wrong any which way you aimed your camera. The Jumbotron screen was far away, but the video cam came in handy. All I had to do was lift it high above my head, zoom in, tilt the view finder screen and watch. Four others craned their necks to watch the events on this small screen. We were not alone with this bit of creativity. Kids were hoisted by their dads to afford them a glimpse and teens took turns climbing on each others’ shoulders. Tears, smiles, pride, Obama caps, Obama buttons, twinkle in the eye — everyone was wearing one or more of these. People swapped tales of how they never thought that this would happen. Of how real this was. Happy people everywhere for whom all the world’s economic crisis meant nothing at this time. What mattered was that they were there.

Aretha Franklin’s rousing performance was lost to the enormous bow she wore. Pastor Rick Warren’s words were lost on the bowed heads of people who said their own thanks and prayers. Elizabeth’s poetry was lost to the anticipation of what was to follow. Reverend Lowery’s rhyming benediction was lost to the chuckles of all who thought that he was the better poet on stage. Justice Roberts’ fumbling of the Presidential oath was lost to the charming smile of the new President we could see on the screen. The soft cold breeze at minus 8{+o} C was totally lost to all of us as the crowd cheered in unison for Barack Hussein Obama while he accepted his responsibility to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States of America” on this sunny day, January 20, 2009.

What a country!!

Check out my album at http://picasaweb.google.com/manick/Inauguration09?authkey=8TbXLW CoemQ&feat=directlink

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