No 767 jetliner. No marching band or uniformed cheerleaders. Just two busloads of people destined to go to Washington, D.C., to welcome a new president. We had a hunger for change. We came from different backgrounds but had a unity of purpose that made the trip a once in a lifetime event.
Our sojourn to Washington reminded me of Spike Lee's 1996 epic "Get On The Bus." It traced the three day journey of of a group of men heading from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March. On our bus, though, there was no arguing. We shared food, sang songs, even watched reruns of Andy Griffin on the overhead monitors. Our Caucasian bus driver had 57 years of driving experience and must have realized how much religion meant to this mostly African-American crowd when he gave the time and date of his becoming a Christian in 1972.
Traveling by bus on the North Carolina Obama Inaugural "Dream to the Promise" gave an added dimension to the celebration of President Obama's inauguration. We all shared the common goal of not just talking about the trip but actually making the trip. I shared the trip with my good friend and neighbor Dr. Marion Phillips as well as civil rights and NAACP attorney Al McSurely. There were a host of people from all backgrounds – men, women,children – mostly African-Americans – who were determined to "be there" when Senator Barack Obama officially became president.
It was a history lesson, beginning with my packing fried chicken in a shoe box as I prepared for my trip. I explained to my daughter, Alex, how African-Americans who traveled the United States years ago had to pack lunches as the restaurants and hotels would not serve them. She seemed puzzled at the story of how my family always lodged at Tuskegee Institute on our drives from North Carolina to New Orleans to visit my mother's family as no hotels would welcome us. As she took pictures of this gleeful and hopeful crowd departing University Mall in Chapel Hill for Washington, D.C., she seemed to better understand what we were all about.
Our first stop was the North Carolina gala on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. Many tour buses, under the leadership of people like Bruce Lightner, Brad Thompson, Paul Pope and Fred Battle, gathered there for an Obama rally that jump-started our celebration to take place the next day. It was an elegant affair, full of hope and promise. Sweet Dreams provided the music, a Jumbotron screen showed pictures of President Obama and his family and we held great anticipation of what the next day would hold.
We next traveled to Harrisburg, Pa., for what turned out to be a three-hour hotel stay, long enough for a quick nap, shower and dressing for the 19-degree weather that was to greet us on Jan. 20. The two-hour bus trip to D.C. was uneventful. We boarded the shuttle buses from RFK stadium to the National Mall.
I received a call from my daughter, Deirdre, saying her college roommate's dad, who happened to be Sen. Ted Kennedy's attorney, had two official tickets for us the the inauguration. We were happy at the news but also realized we were all in this thing together. Nobody on that bus had any tickets.
We decided to march onto the National Mall to find the best "perch" we could find. We ended up on a hill just to the right and in front of the Washington monument.
We heard Sen. Diane Feinstein give a welcome, then Rev. Rick Warren give the invocation and finally Supreme Court Justice John Roberts administer the oath of office. What a grand occasion it was to see our esteemed brother stand before the world to become our president.
I began to receive text messages from friends around the world. I only wish my dear father, Allen G. Mask Sr., could have been present to see this glorious day. He had worked so hard for so many years registering people to vote. I am sure he looked down from Heaven with gratitude for what President Obama and all of us have achieved.
I leave you with several observations I made on that cold, crisp day.
- With standing room only and not even space to turn around, this was the largest group to ever gather in Washington, D.C. What a tribute to President Obama as no presidential inauguration has ever rivaled this crowd;
- There were no incidents. Millions of people gathered and there were no disagreements despite the crowded subways, shuttle buses, and limited number of restaurants and bathroom facilities;
- Aretha Franklin sang in the best of American traditions, full of hope, pride and love of country. Rev. Joseph Lowery gave a powerful benediction, so much so that people who were attempting to leave early stopped in their tracks as he prayed.
- It was amazing to see young African-American men carrying and waving American flags;
- People were crying tears of joy. They were laughing and full of a majestic spirit. I heard no ill words spoken during my entire time on the mall. The weather was frigid but the hearts were warm.
- The pageantry continued with the Presidential parade and the heart-stopping minutes when President and Mrs. Obama walked the streets of Pennsylvania Avenue. What a beautiful first family we have!
We boarded our buses later that evening for the five-hour bus ride home. The hundreds of buses at RFK stadium were delayed over an hour because of a nearby accident. A few miles outside of D.C., our bus broke down because of a busted water hose. Delayed but not dismayed, we made it to McDonald's (yep....quite okay for these circumstances) via the second bus traveling with us.
We arrived back in Chapel Hill at approximately 3 a.m. where we all worked together to clear the car windshields of the snow that fell in our absence. We remembered the words of President Obama when he said, "America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter, and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."
Our work has just begun. We all have the obligation to work with our president to restore the greatness of our nation.