Inauguration on King Day an emotional tie for many

To some, Obama has broadened legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King

  • Duane Geddie, of Pasadena, shows off his tickets to the presidential inauguration ceremony.
Duane Geddie, of Pasadena, shows off his tickets to the presidential… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
January 20, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

She'd never seen a presidential inauguration in her life, or wanted to, but on Jan. 20, 2009, Nathasa Werts braved bone-chilling weather and a crowd of more than a million people for a trip to Washington.

The nation had just elected its first black president, after all, and Werts, an African-American mother of three, finally felt a part of the process.

"Our ancestors were slaves, and that's an ugly past, but that election told us we have the power to turn all that around," the Pikesville woman recalled. "I'll tell you what I felt: 'This is my country, too.'"

As last year's election neared, Werts was so sure President Barack Obama would win that she applied for passes for his second inauguration — an event she plans to attend Monday along with thousands of fellow Marylanders.

While the event will lack the groundbreaking element of Obama's first, many see it as having meaning of a different kind. It falls on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the nation's annual commemoration of the civil rights pioneer whose legacy many say Obama is expanding.

"Dr. King showed us how to accept others beyond race," Werts said. "The [president] shows us how to accept others beyond sexual orientation, gender and all these other isses. He definitely represents King's dream. He's part of that dream."

It's only the second time an inauguration has fallen on King's day, a national holiday President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986. The first was Bill Clinton's second swearing-in, in 1997.

It isn't really happening Monday, either, technically speaking. Because the Constitution calls for inaugurations to occur on Jan. 20, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swore in Obama on Sunday during a private White House ceremony. When Obama retakes the oath of office, it will be ceremonial.

To many, though, when Obama places his hand on two stacked Bibles — one once owned by Abraham Lincoln, the other by King — and recites those words, it will add resonance to the legacy of a president who has linked himself to the human rights leader throughout his career.

"The journey of African-Americans has been so long and so hard. The idea that you now have a man who won the presidency in 2008 — and a lot of people called it a fluke — and then for him to win again the way he did, and then for it to be Martin Luther King's birthday and to coincide with [Obama's] being sworn in, I think it sends a very, very powerful message," says Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat long active on minority issues.

Many of those who attended Obama's first inauguration sensed that message as well. The event drew staggering interest. Despite single-digit temperatures, the crowd on the National Mall exceeded 1.8 million. It was so massive it snarled traffic throughout Washington, and many who held tickets never got through to their spots.

Free passes that day guaranteed only a reserved place to stand, as they do this year. Most in attendance saw Obama only on huge video screens.

The 44th president focused his words more on Lincoln than on King that day. But few could miss how the scene echoed the ideals of the religious leader who helped persuade Americans to back legislation that would guarantee legal racial equality in the United States.

"I met all kinds of people that day — red and yellow, old and young, black and white," recalled Fahcina Lawson of Columbia, who stood across the Capitol reflecting pool from Obama as he spoke. "It was so cold I don't even want to talk about it, but people were sharing blankets and food. Everyone was in unison, in sync. I remember thinking, 'I wonder if this is what heaven is like.'"

An equally frigid Taylor Barfield of Glen Burnie, then a sophomore at Old Mill High School, stood with her mother, Veronica, not far away. She's still trying to put the day in perspective.

"It's amazing to think there are people alive today who remember the days of unequal bathrooms and laws against interracial marriage. And now, an African-American president? Who saw that coming? We came so far as a nation, so quickly," she said.

Perhaps because this year's inauguration can't claim to be a first, crowds are expected to be much smaller. Demand for tickets hasn't come close to matching that of 2009, when the office of Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, got 60,000 requests for 330 available tickets.

But it has been robust. About 3,700 people asked for one of Cardin's 325 passes this year, and 1,000 or so asked for the 160 Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a fellow Democrat, had to give out. Both used a lottery system to handle requests.

Werts contacted Ruppersberger's office so much earlier than anyone else — in August 2012 — that staffers exempted her from the drawing. "They weren't going to keep their No. 1 out," Werts said, laughing.

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