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January 21, 2013 7:39 pm
Melissa Stokes’ day began before dawn with a visit to the new Martin Luther King memorial and then photos with friends in front of the Lincoln memorial, before the long trek to the other end of the mall to hear Barack Obama. The 32-year-old from near Baltimore did not make it to Mr Obama’s first inauguration and regretted it ever since.
“I am just so proud that we have a black president that I had to come this time,” she said, before watching him speak on one of the large screens that lined the mall. “When you think about what Martin Luther King went through, it is just incredible where we are now.”
Mr Obama’s second inaugural had been billed as a smaller and more low-key affair than the epic event on a much colder day four years ago, when 1.8m people packed the mall. There would be less historical significance and wide-eyed optimism about the “hope and virtue” that he called for last time, it was said, more hard-edged realism about the political realities of governing.
Yet among the still huge crowd that filled the mall, perhaps the most striking aspect was the large number of African-Americans present – at least half in many sections – who came out to hear Mr Obama deliver a powerful statement about equality of opportunity.
Many of the African-Americans in the crowd described attending the inaugural as both a pleasure but also a form of duty. “I would not have missed it for the world,” said Linda Booth, 67, who was wearing a long mink coat she only used for church on cold winter days.
The pride among Mr Obama’s supporters in some ways mirrored election day’s defining images of long lines at polling stations in states such as Florida of inner city voters waiting to cast their ballot. Many were African-American, the sort of resilient support that turned what was supposed to be a razor-close election into a victory by 3.5m votes.
Among the crowd, the biggest applause was his complaint about Americans “forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote”.
With his second inauguration happening to fall on Martin Luther King Day, Mr Obama invoked the former civil rights leader to place the plight of African-Americans, gay rights and womens’ rights as part of the American tradition that “all of us are created equal”, a truth that “guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” – a reference to an early women’s rights conference, a key moment in the civil rights struggle and the incident that sparked the gay rights movement.
Among Mr Obama’s supporters, there was recognition of the tough realities he faces. “It is going to be hard, we know they [the Republicans] are going to make life hard for him, but he knows how to get things done now. He is not so naive,” said Peter Holmes, 53, from Washington.
Michelle Jackson Lee, an African-American from Richmond, Virginia, wearing a “Cougars for Obama” badge, said: “Last time was so emotional but there was also . . . anxiety that something terrible might happen to him and take it all away.
“This time we are just so happy and proud that he is our president.”
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