Inauguration on King Day an emotional tie for many

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.

There was plenty of excitement at Cardin's downtown office Friday, too, as the first several dozen lottery winners stopped by to claim their tickets. Duane Geddie, a 38-year-old locomotive engineer from Pasadena, had a spring in his step when he walked in, snatched up the envelope containing his passes and a map, and took a moment to ponder the moment.

Because Obama lacked the element of surprise this year, his reelection was more historic than the original, Geddie said. And because Obama and King "share certain basic values, such as nonviolence and bipartisanship," it almost seemed as though the dual event "was supposed to happen."

Indeed, many seem to believe the overlap between the president's day and King's is too providential not to have meaning.

"It's symbolic," said Lawson, a scientific researcher who plans to be there Monday. "These two African-American men believed and believe in bringing all people together under the ideas of the Constitution. And like in a wedding, you're getting something old and something new, a taste of the past and the present. How is that not beautiful for every American?"

Taylor Barfield, now a Bowie State University junior, agrees. Obama has helped make people of all kinds feel more invested in public life, she says.

"Look at the Senate; it has more women, African-Americans and young people than ever," says Barfield, adding that King would "enjoy President Obama's presence" if he were alive today.

Not everyone buys the King-Obama link. The president's critics point out that black unemployment was at 14 percent in December, more than twice that of whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But true believers have few doubts.

"This is all happening on the right day to the right president," says Barfield, who plans to attend with her mother again Monday. "It's so powerful I have a hard time describing it,"

There would have been no overlap were it not for several oddities of the calendar. The nation held its inaugurations on March 4 between 1793 and 1933, when a constitutional amendment changed the date. King's holiday was held on his birthday, Jan. 15, until it was moved to the third Monday in January in 1986. This year's inauguration fell on a Sunday for only the seventh time.

But to some, including Cummings, history is more than a web of coincidences. It's a narrative that one comes to grasp over time.

"When I think about the fact that my own father was a sharecropper on land that was once owned by slaveowners, and my mother was, too, slavery isn't that far away," Cummings said. "I tell my children that it's hard to appreciate history while you're experiencing it. I believe this day will be appreciated even more 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 100 years from now."

Or maybe it won't take that long. Dylan Goldberg of Columbia says politics has always obsessed him, but that as a kid growing up in a middle class family that lacked connections, he never imagined he'd have a chance to be involved until he came across Obama in 2007.

"To see a guy with that last name get elected President changed everything for me," said Goldberg, 22, who went on to canvass for a county councilman and later got a job in state government.

The University of Maryland-College Park senior, who scored inauguration tickets weeks ago, has spent the last few days marveling at his luck, trying on the tux he'll wear at two balls this weekend, and looking forward to the 57th inauguration in U.S. history.

Goldberg has political aspirations of his own, and doesn't seem to blame Obama for narrowing his prospects a little.

"As a white male, at any other time I'd have been able to think, 'My dream will come true,'" he says. "In the future, there will be more kinds of people at the table than ever. But that's the greatest thing about this presidency. Everybody has a chance."

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