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Essay: Because 'They Were There,' We Are Here

Stories abound of African-Americans committed to going to the inauguration of Barack Obama, even though many of them are without tickets to the ceremonies or reservations for lodging.

David Evans (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
David Evans (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

To visit Washington without lodging seems irresponsible, if not reckless, given the millions expected for the inauguration, the almost non-existence of housing in the area, the typically cold January weather, and strict crowd-control measures in place since Sept. 11.

I hope, however, that persons of influence in Greater Washington will try to understand the history and emotional undergirding of what is essentially a "pilgrimage" for many of these committed travelers. This is especially the case for African-Americans who remember the Jim Crow laws. I am told that busloads are going from the Deep South for the spiritual fulfillment of being in the same space with the first African-American to take the oath of office as president of the United States.

It reminds me of a story told to me by my grandmother, a native of Tallahatchie County, Miss., who died in 1955 at age 94. She said that her mother, a former slave, described a similar black "pilgrimage" from 1864 or 1865 in a southern border state held by Union forces. News circulated among emancipated slaves that a train rumored to carry Abraham Lincoln would pass through the area in a few days. Many ex-slaves were so moved by that possibility that they walked 40 or 50 miles just to see the train on which they thought he was a passenger. That recollection captures the spirit of many African-Americans who will trek to Washington on January 20, 2009.

Thousands of these travelers are in the sunset of their days, with long shadows falling toward the east. They are what we used to call "they-were-there" people. They were there in Little Rock in 1957; they were there in Nashville in 1960; in Birmingham and on the National Mall with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963; at the bridge in Selma in 1965, and, in the case of the Tuskegee airmen, in the skies over North Africa and Europe in World War II.

Because they were there, we are here as a more principled nation that could elect Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States.

Commentator David Evans lives and writes in Cambridge, Mass. He is senior admissions officer at Harvard University, which offers five scholarships in his name for students who have overcome hardship. Evans is attending the presidential inauguration.

This program aired on January 19, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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