Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Glimpsing the dream

Priscilla Casey shouts

Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Priscilla Casey shouts "Obama!" with her friend Betty Thompson (left) and thousands of others as they make their way to the National Mall on Tuesday morning. Casey helped organize the trip that took two busloads of people from Roanoke to the inauguration in Washington, D.C.

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Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.

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WASHINGTON -- At 7 years old, Brenda Keeling stood on the National Mall in 1963 with her older sister Wilma as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I Have A Dream" speech.

She knew something important was going on that day. But she did not understand the gravity of King's words.

Tuesday, the significance resonated with the Roanoke woman as she stood on the same Mall, a witness to the inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation's first black president.

"What his dream was then," Keeling said of King's speech, "is just what is happening here today."

Keeling was one of many Roanokers who made the trip to Washington to watch the president take the oath of office.

The journey was a long time coming -- for Keeling and the country.

Now 52, she is the divorced mother of two teenage sons who stood by her and celebrated Obama's once unimaginable achievement.

As she took her place on the Mall Tuesday morning, she broke down in tears and placed her head on my shoulder. She looked at the sea of faces from all backgrounds blanketing the Mall and celebrating an Obama presidency.

Overwhelming her was that this was the Mall where King, four decades earlier, rallied Americans to confront segregation and inequality in this country.

Keeling's sister, Priscilla Casey, gushed as she got off the bus, "I can't believe I'm here."

She peeled open a small, wallet-like purse and produced pictures of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt -- all deceased. She also carried a photo of her son and daughter-in-law in Charlotte, and another son serving in the military in Japan.

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Tuesday, their pictures would have to substitute for their presence.

"It's important for them to be here," said Casey, 60. "If I'm here they need to be here, too."

Of her ancestors, she added, "If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be here."

While black Americans take a special pride in Obama's election, it could not have been achieved without all Americans inspired by his message of hope, change and inclusiveness of all peoples.

His presidency trumps the long-held view that this country was not ready for a black leader.

Those Americans who hold to the notion that they cannot vote for a person merely because of the color of his or her skin will find themselves on the sidelines.

A nation built by immigrants, America is increasingly becoming a multicultural country. The son of an African immigrant and a white mother from Kansas, Obama's own background is a testament to that diversity. By 2050, half of all Americans will be people of color.

Casey, along with her friend Sylvia Journiette, organized the two-bus caravan that ferried about 85 Southwest Virginians to Washington.

I joined them, and we left shortly after midnight Tuesday for the one-day trip that attracted men and women of all ages and backgrounds.

Reba Fitzgerald made the trip to Washington because Obama is "the first black man to become president. Just being in the crowd, that he's the first black man, it shows people are being more open-minded."

David Lewis, 18, joined his mother, Eileen, because the inauguration "is a piece of history, and I want to tell my children and my children's children I was there."

Delores Sims admires Obama's inclusiveness and noted it in his inauguration speech.

"He always says 'we,' " the 67-year-old Roanoker said. "His words touch you. I felt so full" of emotion.

Obama also stirred 60-year-old George Pearson with the speech.

"He did it like a champ," Pearson said. "His message was that the time for change is here. We all have to band together. We have to do what we've done throughout history, come together."

The Roanokers arrived at RFK Stadium at 5:15 a.m. Tuesday and got off the bus at 6 a.m. After waiting for a shuttle bus and walking several blocks, Keeling arrived at the Mall about 10 a.m.

With about two hours before Obama's oath, the excitement of the historic moment was thick. In this crush of Obama supporters, there were no strangers, just people drawn together by their support of the president.

Anita Leonard of Nyack, N.Y., stood with Keeling and others from Roanoke, and Leonard's quick wit made the time go fast.

When Hillary Clinton was introduced with her husband, the former president, Leonard quipped, "Hill and Bill. Now when have you ever seen Hillary and Bill holding hands? It's amazing what Barack has done."

Everyone busted up.

First lady Michelle Obama's dress had been the focus of much anticipation. When she came out with a bright green suit, it received favorable remarks. Keeling noted that the Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, looked "like two little jewels."

But for Keeling, the ceremony was full of poignant moments.

As Grammy-winning artist Aretha Franklin sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," tears streamed from Keeling's eyes when she heard the refrain "Let freedom ring."

When Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath and congratulated Obama, Keeling raised her hand toward the sky. Her two sons, Justin, 18, and Jeffrey, 16, immediately raised their digital cameras above the crowd and began snapping.

"What a marvelous day," their mother said, as she called my attention to a banner that spectators raised as the event concluded.

"I Have a Dream," it read.

The second line was, "Dreams come true."

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