In Lincoln's shadow

Inauguration | At the Lincoln Memorial Sunday, with hundreds of thousands looking on, a parade of stars celebrated Barack Obama's historic achievement
by Emily Belz
Posted 1/19/09, 12:00 am

WASHINGTON-If you're a celebrity and you're not in Washington, D.C., you missed a memo.

Tom Hanks, Beyoncé, U2, Tiger Woods, Martin Luther King III, Steve Carell, James Taylor, Jack Black, Stevie Wonder, Samuel L. Jackson, Queen Latifah, Josh Groban, Bruce Springsteen, Denzel Washington, and others-oh, and the president and vice president-to-be-joined together Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial for a concert marking the opening of inaugural events. Whenever Barack Obama's face appeared bouncing along to the music on the JumboTrons along the National Mall, he drew more screams than any celebrity.

Each star spoke or sang about the history and meaning of the moment on the steps of the memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech.

"Behind me sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible," said Obama, referring to the towering statue of Abraham Lincoln.

He added that the builders of history stood not on stage but in the audience, regular Americans who wore layers of jackets and waited hours upon hours in freezing temperatures to be a part of the celebration.

"There is no obstacle that can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change," he said. "I ask you to help reveal that character once more."

Attendance estimates ranged from 300,000 to 750,000-either way, it was a lot of people. Some climbed up in trees to see above the pressing mass of spectators. People came from states up and down the East Coast and as far away as California, forming an ethnically diverse crowd. International television crews ran amok. The Strayhorns came from Raleigh, N.C., so they could "witness history."

"Some people don't understand how important the election of Barack Obama is," said mom Dell Strayhorn.

"It's the first time you guys have cared much," said dad Blake Strayhorn, to his high school sons, Thomas and Will.

Openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson opened the concert with a "come together" prayer, a task he received after flap about Obama's choice of Pastor Rick Warren, who opposes gay marriage, to pray at the inauguration.

"Bless us with anger-at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people," Robinson said.

He prayed that Americans would not treat Obama as a messiah.

"We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we're asking far too much of this one," he said. "We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand."

Then the speakers intoned, "Please remain standing for the singing of our national anthem," to which thousands who had been standing on the lawn for hours laughed.

But when notoriously long-winded Vice President-elect Joe Biden rose to speak, one spectator from Delaware groaned, "Sit down, we're going to be here all night." When he finished his remarks in record time, another asked, "No Scranton? No Delaware? No train?" Biden talks habitually about his commute on Amtrak from Wilmington, Del.

The concert was not a collection of "greatest hits," but songs that fit the moment, like Beyoncé's rendition of "America the Beautiful." U2's performance of its song "Pride" was poignant because it describes King's assassination: "Early morning, April 4 / Shot rings out in the Memphis sky / Free at last / They took your life / They could not take your pride . . . in the name of love."

In the audience, Viola Gaines, 79, from Westchester County, N.Y., faced the cold stoically. She and her husband, Albert, had made reservations for a hotel in Washington before Obama delivered his acceptance speech on Nov. 4, but in December he left her a widow. During World War II he was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the military.

"As I saw the airplanes constantly passing, I thought of him," she said, looking up at the planes landing at nearby Reagan National Airport.

The inaugural committee offered tickets to the swearing-in to all the Tuskegee airmen as well as a visit to the White House, but "they weren't inviting widows," Gaines said. Her representative in Congress, John Hall, procured two tickets to the inauguration for her and her daughter Deborah Yearwood after hearing Gaines' story.

"I've been walking and walking and walking," Gaines said. "I thank the good Maker I'm able to do it."

Before the Sunday concert, the Obamas attended their first worship services in Washington, at the 170-year-old Nineteenth Street Baptist Church.

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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