An inaugural for the people

Pattie Brew, (right) daughter of a North Carolina sharecropper, had let almost a century go by without casting a vote for president or joining the inaugural crowds only three miles from her home in the nation’s capital.

"I never had no interest in it because my vote don’t matter anyway, so I never even took the time to fool with it," said the 97-year-old woman known as Mother Brew. "I knew white people had the right of way here, you know."

But on Nov. 4, she slipped on white gloves and pearls and found her way to a polling booth. And on Jan. 20, she wants to see the country’s first inauguration of a black president — not from a couch at home but from somewhere closer by.

"So much history in this, honey," Brew said. "You gonna get me a ticket?"

From the District of Columbia’s historically black neighborhoods to Honolulu, Americans who had let many presidents pass them by are clamoring for a chance to be a part of Barack Obama’s inauguration. There are lengthy waiting lists for tickets to the inauguration and balls. Hotels have filled up as far away as West Virginia.

Organizers can only guess at the size of the crowds, but the estimates range from 1 million to an unprecedented 5 million, which are certain to include many African-Americans who feel connected to the White House for the first time.

The crowd will include people like Mark Anthony Jenkins of the Bronx, N.Y., who runs the online Black Singles magazine. Jenkins has rented 10 buses and has already sold out four for an $80 journey that leaves at 4 a.m. and includes Obama T-shirts and snacks. Jenkins hired 10 cameramen to document the experience.

"People see this as a historical event," Jenkins said. "Many of them aren’t old enough to remember Martin Luther King Jr., you know, they never saw him."

In the weeks since Obama’s victory, Washington’s NAACP bureau has been fielding questions about lodging from members as far away as California. Area colleges and universities, including the historically black Howard University, are receiving calls from out-of-town students wanting to crash in dorm rooms.

Some are thankful just for a floor.

"The kids will see it and remember it," said James Robinson of Greenburgh, N.Y., who has a relative in suburban Maryland who offered her floor to his family. "If we’re there, I think it will sink in more that, ‘I can be anything I want to be.’"

About 400 NAACP members from Florida are planning to drive at least 12 hours by car or bus, said Beverlye Colson Neal, executive director of the state chapter. Neal hopes to stand along the inaugural parade route with her four grandchildren, ages 1 to 10.

"We are going to take plenty of pictures, so they will know, ‘I was there,’" she said.

Some didn’t wait for Obama’s victory to make arrangements. The Rev. Tommie Jackson, pastor of the majority black Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Stamford, Conn., took a chance and reserved several buses after Obama won the Iowa caucuses in January.

"I said, ‘We’re going all the way,’" Jackson said. "Our congregation is elated, just overwhelmed that they’re sharing in a history-making event. It’s been a long time coming."

Tondaylea Linsey of Stockbridge, Ga., made up her mind to go moments after Obama’s victory was announced, and booked her ticket even before she was sure she could get the time off work.

"Even though it’s going to be freezing up there and there’s going to be a million people … this is like, once in a lifetime," said Linsey, 26.

For many older than Linsey, the journey has deep connections to their struggle for civil rights. Members of the historic First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., will crowd onto buses 50 years to the month after six of the city’s public schools were ordered to integrate and shut down instead. Seventeen children who were educated in the basement of the downtown church, known as the Norfolk 17, were the first to break the color barrier.

Some of the Norfolk 17 will be on the trip, church trustee Michael Lawton said.

Families of all colors are booking $95 reservations from the Pittsburgh-area tour bus company DeBolt’s LeGrand American Inc. Its owner, 60-year-old George DeBolt, remembers his parents running the company when President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961.

"I think this is the biggest inaugural event since the Kennedy inauguration," he said. "Personally, I think this will be bigger."

For those traveling from faraway states like Hawaii, where Obama spent a fair amount of his youth, things are much more pricey. One six-night inauguration travel package goes for $3,299 per person. And alas, the state’s inaugural ball has sold out.

In the past, many longtime D.C. residents have viewed inaugurations as a good time to get away. But this time may be different. Already, people in majority-black Washington are talking about how they can join the throngs celebrating Obama’s swearing-in.

The Rev. Joseph K. Williams, who said his grandfather held him during the 1963 March on Washington and who remembers the 1968 riots, says he working all his connections to get his family tickets to Obama’s swearing-in. Regardless, Williams, 46, said he’ll don his gloves and hat and take a few hours off of work on Jan. 20.

"Whether it’s stupid euphoria or not, I feel a sense of being connected to this president," he said.

Williams, executive director of Emmaus Services for the Aging, is also trying to score tickets for a group of senior citizens.

"They deserve this time more than my generation does," he said. "I think they will hear the song, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and believe that we have."

Williams says he knows Pattie Brew and hopes to help her attend the inauguration.

At her home, where she sits with a walker in front of her, Brew called Obama "another Martin Luther King." She said God had a hand in his election. And yes, God answered her own prayers. "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!" Brew began to sing in praise of those prayers.

"I’m ready," Brew said of Inauguration Day. "What about you? You lookin’ out trying to get a ticket for me?"


Associated Press writers Nafeesa Syeed in Washington, Errin Haines in Atlanta, Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, N.Y., Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh, Steve Szkotak in Richmond, Va., and Ron Word in Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this report.