Young People Throng to Nation’s Capital to Catch a Glimpse of History


WASHINGTON, D.C. – More than a million people poured into downtown Washington, D.C., yesterday, a federal holiday dedicated to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., for the festivities marking the start of President Barack Obama’s second term in office.

The crowd included hundreds of thousands of young people from around the country, from elementary school students accompanying their parents to college-age youth hanging out with their friends. They spent hours traveling on buses and trains to the National Mall, more hours waiting in the January cold for the ceremonies to begin, and many more stuck in gridlock at security checkpoints and Metrorail stations afterward on their way home.

Youth Today asked some of these young people, many of whom were too young to vote for Obama either time, why they were there.

On the Orange Line Metrorail from Vienna, Va., to L’Enfant Plaza, D.C.

“I just wanted to see what Michelle was wearing,” joked Sarah Allu, 19, who boarded a Metrorail train in Vienna, Va., at the far end of the Orange Line, early Monday morning to head to the National Mall with Amandeep Sandhu, 20, and Pravarjay Reddy, 18.

All three remembered watching Obama’s first inaugural on TV four years ago. Now that they were in college so close to D.C., at George Mason University in Herndon, Va., they wanted to witness the second inaugural in person, Sandhu said.

Reddy, an international student who arrived in the United States from India last fall, said he was impressed by the orderliness of the American political process and the political enthusiasm of his American peers.

“People take pride in being involved in the system,” Reddy said. “Back in India, I don’t think many people are interested in politics at my age. That’s a big difference.”

All three of them had strong ideas about what Obama should accomplish in his second term. The country needs stricter gun laws and students need easier access to financing for college, they said.

But Allu and Sandhu, naturalized citizens whose families migrated from India years ago, opposed any initiatives Obama could put forward to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“I think it’s a completely wrong idea,” Allu said. “We did a process. We paid so much to get where we are.”

Sandhu agreed. “It took us quite a while to get our citizenship,” she said. “Them coming in and getting the same rights is not right, because we worked hard for that and for so many years.”

7TH and D Streets NW

As the crowds streamed out of L’Enfant Plaza Metro station around 10 a.m., hawkers lined the street corners selling memorabilia like T-shirts, posters and cloth bags printed with four-year-old images of the Obama family. This vendor said she bought her wares wholesale, and was hoping to sell enough to make her mortgage payment. By noon, many vendors were already offering significant discounts.

7th Street and Independence Avenue NW

African Americans of all ages made up a large proportion of the crowds streaming from the L’Enfant Palza Metro station and toward the National Mall before the ceremonies. “I don’t see a lot of white people,” said one young woman in a low voice as she followed a crowd down Independence Avenue.

Security measures were in evidence everywhere. A helicopter patrolled overhead as crowds headed to the Mall.

12th Street NW and Independence Ave NW

Squashed between the masses of people trying to get to the Mall were seven students from Bullhead City Junior High School in Bullhead City, Ariz., and their five adult chaperones. They’d been in town since Thursday and had already visited Arlington Cemetery, the National Air and Space Museum and the Holocaust Museum, said Mike McClurg, a social studies teacher.

Last Constitution Day, the school held an essay contest for students to describe, among other things, their favorite Constitutional amendment and their favorite Supreme Court case. Several of the prize-winning essays, like those by eighth-graders Andrew Gutierrez and Desirae Webb, both 15, referenced Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark ruling against racial segregation in schools.

Community groups, including veterans’ groups and the local Republican women’s committee, helped the group raise about $10,000 to travel to D.C. for the inauguration and some cultural sightseeing, McClurg said. They were blogging about their trip for their local paper, the Mohave Daily News.

A must-see before they went home, McClurg said, was a stop at the National Archives to view the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

National Mall

“We came all the way to Washington to watch TV?” asked 13-year-old India Hicks, looking at the giant screen in the distance that showed images of the Obamas at the inauguration ceremony. Hicks had boarded a bus from Philadelphia in the wee morning hours on Monday, getting to D.C. at 6.30 a.m. with her mother and cousins, Meyona Johnson, 12, and Madison Goodwin, 9. They’d been standing in the cold since, waiting for the ceremonies to begin.

About 150 family and community members had packed into three buses for the trip. “Everybody loves the president,” Hicks said.

Johnson nodded. “He says no guns, no violence,” she said. “And he wants to help the homeless.”

National Mall

Nine-year-old Ayana Pulliam straddled her stepfather’s shoulders, straining to get a better view down the Mall. She’d had an early morning, leaving Camden, N.J. before 5 a.m. on a bus with her parents and about 50 other people associated with her elementary school. They got to Washington before 8 a.m.

“I’m excited to see Barack Obama in person!” she said.

National Mall

Caitlin Christian, 16 (above, second from left), hosted a sleepover at her parents’ home in Chevy Chase, Md., the night before the inauguration. Eight teenagers stayed over, some of whom she’d only met a week earlier. They rose at 4.30 a.m. and took the Metrorail to downtown D.C. together, eager to take part in a historic event.

The nine attend schools all over the D.C. metro area and recently joined Operation Understanding D.C., an organization that promotes dialogue between African American and Jewish teens. They’ll be old enough to vote in the next presidential election, but they still wanted a piece of this one.

“I didn’t get to vote for our first black president,” said Mia Hammonds, 17, who lives in northeast D.C. “So I thought I’d come to the inauguration.”

Daryn Robinson, 16 (above, fifth from left), of Upper Marlboro, Md., attended Obama’s inauguration four years ago, but it’s more special this time, she said. “Last time, my family dragged me. I was 12,” she said. “This time, I set the alarm to wake everyone up. There’s a sense of independence in that.”

Their program supervisor, Aaron Jenkins, encouraged them to attend this “super historic” day, Robinson said. When Martin Luther King Jr. addressed crowds on the National Mall to call for racial equality, he was speaking to future generations like Obama, Jenkins told the group, Robinson said.

And on this day, she said, Obama would speak back.

12 Street NW and Constitution Avenue NW

Cierra Waller, 26, spent 15 hours on a bus to get to D.C. from Bowling Green, Ky., traveling with a group of undergraduate and graduate students and staff members from Western Kentucky University.

In the hours after the inauguration ceremony, Waller found herself jammed between hundreds of other people, including Noelle Johnson, 22, and Abbey Oldham, 21, also from the university, trying to get into the Federal Triangle metro station to take the train back to her Alexandria hotel.

But none of the inconvenience mattered.

“It just gives you hope to be here,” Waller said. “As an African American growing up, you never had hope that you could do anything, but just being here makes you believe that you can.”

Photos by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

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Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Kaukab Jhumra Smith has worked in journalism since 1995, except for the two years she spent as a middle-school teacher in Pakistan. She holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has reported on politics, technology, business and culture for American, Pakistani and Vietnamese media.