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Lincoln Memorial A Doubly Powerful Place On Inauguration Day

For many inauguration attendees without tickets to official viewing areas, there was a historic alternative all the way on the other side of the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln is often invoked by President Obama and the memorial's role in the civil rights movement also made it a powerful draw on a day that was not only Inauguration Day, but also Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

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Many of the people who poured into the streets of Washington, D.C. today to mark President Obama's inauguration did so without tickets to official viewing areas. Some even headed in the opposite direction from the Capitol to the other side of the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial.

Lincoln is often invoked by President Obama. That, and the Memorial's role in the civil rights movement made it a powerful draw on a day that was not just inauguration day, but also Martin Luther King Day. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has that story.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: I'm standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just a few feet away from the spot where in 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. And all morning long on this Inauguration Day, people have been coming up here, stopping for just a few moments, standing in that spot, in essence paying their respects before heading off to hear the president's speech at the other end of the Mall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TROUBLE OF THE WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, the troubles of the world...

GONYEA: That choir performing an impromptu concert on the steps before eight o'clock this morning featured young people from a group called Christian Community Youth. Like many, they felt the day would not be complete without a visit to the Lincoln Memorial. That's what brought five students from Saginaw, Michigan here as well, early this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, we took a picture. It's not really good, but we took a picture. We stood there.

GONYEA: Among them, 22-year-old Stacy Reed.

STACY REED: This is - it was meant for him to be president, to be on Martin Luther King's Day, sworn in and everything. Like, I feel this is, like, I'm part of something really, like she said, historical. I'm proud. Like, don't make me cry.

GONYEA: Moments later, a family from Hanover, Pennsylvania, strolled past. Erin and Keith Smith were here with their three kids and her parents. Here's Keith.

KEITH SMITH: I just thought it was important for our children on this day, just the day falling on the inauguration, Martin Luther King Day, that we do pay our respects. You know, we kind of - like, this is an important day and we don't complain about walking. We don't complain about the cold. We just enjoy being here.

GONYEA: I asked 12-year-old Henry if it was fun history or not so much.

HENRY SMITH: Some of it is history, but then some of the time you're having fun walking around and exploring.

GONYEA: Later in the morning, as the ceremony at the Capitol approached, 67-year-old Cookie Taylor of Dayton, Ohio, walked from the Lincoln Memorial along the reflecting pool. She says she missed the inauguration four years ago. During the campaign, the battleground state of Ohio, she says she personally knocked on 1,000 doors. Taylor says she remembers the "I Have A Dream" speech well and the things Dr. King was fighting to change.

COOKIE TAYLOR: As a kid, as a teenager, I lived in a place where I suffered through it. So it is really important to me at this point because I can remember all the stuff I went through.

GONYEA: Another visitor to the Lincoln Memorial today was 71-year-old Mary Mudd of Omaha. She says she found inspiration on this day seeing Lincoln and thinking about Dr. King.

MARY MUDD: Being Martin Luther King Day has a special meaning for the inauguration. We've got Americans who were courageous in decision-making as they tried to make our country a better country.

GONYEA: All morning, the Lincoln Memorial was busy, if not crowded, as people paused and moved on. During the president's speech, though, they mostly stayed, sitting quietly on the steps not far from where Dr. King spoke. They listened on radios and watched using the latest technology, smartphones and tablets. But they were thinking about history. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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