WASHINGTON -- On a day that had the dual distinction of honoring Dr. Martin Luther King and inaugurating the country’s first African-American president for a second term, a few words from the slain civil rights leader rang particularly true for some of the Charlotte residents on hand.
“If you can’t fly, then run,” King once said. “If you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Hundreds of Carolinians joined hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans in witnessing the swearing-in of Barack Obama, the nation’s 44th president. It was a day of celebrating citizenship, of icy sunshine that framed the city’s architectural icons.
It was also a day when the nation’s capital was reduced to gridlock, forcing the visiting Charlotteans to move at a crawl, when they could move forward at all.
“Go this way. No, go that way. I’ve been walking all morning,” said Leroy Heath of Monroe, part of a pack of locals that walked for almost two hours to reach the National Mall for the Monday morning inaugural ceremonies.
Getting out of the vicinity proved even harder. Streets that served as entrances to the National Mall were blocked off. Police, while generally helpful, often gave conflicting directions. Streets closed. Streets opened.
Yet those who had traveled from Charlotte found the festivities as inspirational as they were exhausting.
“There is so much to hope for,” said Dianna Jolly, part of a busload that had left Concord Mills at 9 p.m. Sunday and was to return early Tuesday morning.
For several of Jolly’s co-passengers, the double celebration of the King holiday and the kickoff of Obama’s second term gave the day even more significance, a worldwide reminder that what King had died for, Obama had brought to life.
“It’s history,” Nigel Brookes of Charlotte said, and he wanted his 5-year-old daughter Nya to see it firsthand. “It has the timing of a comet, an eclipse.”
Is Nya old enough to understand?
“Ask her yourself,” the father responded. “Hey Nya, who’s the president who sits like this?” Brookes extended his arms in front of him.
“Lincoln,” the little girl said. The father beamed.
Some of Nya’s fellow Charlotteans went to some lengths to be on the bus.
Frances Edwards learned a week ago that she had diabetes, yet made the trip anyway. She sat next to 77-year-old Lugertha Morris who had to leave her motorized scooter at home, but made do with her cane.
In 1963, as a girl growing up in New Bern, Doris Boone had taken part in King’s march on Washington. Four years ago, she cried in front of her TV in Charlotte during Obama’s first inauguration.
This time, she didn’t think she could afford a return trip to Washington until a friend from work, Barbara Lowery, stepped in to help. Both were on the National Mall to watch Obama, whom Boone described as “the extension of King’s dream.” “I never thought I’d live long enough to see it,” she said.
Charlotte filled dozens of buses for the event. One of the buses was organized by Susan Woods to raise money for her nonprofit, which teaches leadership to young black males. She called her excursion the “Witness History trip.”
Fifty-seven people signed up.
For Woods, the trip lived up to its name. The bus arrived at RFK stadium before dawn Monday, and Woods set off on foot for The Mall before 7 a.m. She walked down North Carolina Avenue then marveled at her first glimpse of the Capitol building, which appeared carved out of ivory under the soft winter sun.
She reached the National Mall to the familiar sounds of “Shout.” She later heard James Taylor sing “America the Beautiful” from the inaugural stage.
She waited almost three hours to hear Obama take his oath. History was made, and Susan Brooks was indeed a witness.