South Carolinians ready to witness history

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Marcus Howard, the student body president of Mullins High School, between Florence and Myrtle Beach, S.C., never really believed his parents and teachers when they told him that he could reach high for big ambitions.

Now he does.

"We now know the sky's the limit, literally," Howard said.

Relaxing for a moment Monday in the office of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, Howard clutched his embossed ticket to Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president.

Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, shed tears on national television as he prepared to lead member of the House of Representatives outside the Capitol to be seated near the podium for the swearing-in of the first black president.

"To really share this day with children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, this is more than I ever thought I would ever get out of politics or maybe even out of life," Clyburn told CNN. "This is a great day today."

On the national holiday to honor the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., Clyburn recalled meeting the slain civil rights leader in 1960 for a meeting of activists that stretched into dawn.

Obama reminds Clyburn of King.

"They're very similar," he said. "Very thoughtful."

Obama's inauguration, Clyburn said in a separate interview, will fulfill his own years of service for people who struggle in their daily lives.

"He will be putting his left hand on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln put his hand on when he took the oath to become the 16th president," Clyburn said. "It will be a feeling of vindication for me."

Clyburn attended a dinner Obama hosted Monday to honor Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee he defeated Nov. 4, and also went to the South Carolina State Society Ball.

Joe Harris, a University of South Carolina Law School student, worried, though, about other African-Americans and him placing too many demands on Obama to address their needs.

"We have to understand he's not here to be a civil rights leader," Harris said of Obama. "He's here to be president for everyone."

Harris, picking up his inauguration ticket in the office of Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., marveled that "all the African-American kids born after the inauguration, they won't know anything different from having a black president."

Hundreds of South Carolinians visited their congressional representatives' offices Monday to pick up the coveted passes that would place them among 240,000 people to watch Obama be sworn into office at 11:56 a.m. Tuesday outside the Capitol's West Front.

Throngs of people will stretch along the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial, from whose portico King delivered his epochal "I Have a Dream Speech" in August 1963.

Cindy Garris, a Founders Federal Credit Union employee from Lancaster, S.C., said she'd always envied people who participated in the 1963 March on Washington to hear King speak.

Now, wearing a pink hat with a large Obama button on the front, Garris felt her time had come.

"I wanted to be a part of it, too," she said in Spratt's office. "I had to be up here for Obama's inauguration."

Palmetto State residents waited outside in near-freezing weather for two hours or longer to enter the marble congressional office buildings and claim their inauguration tickets.

Many later returned to their hotels or to the homes of friends and relatives, changed into tuxedos and gowns and dashed off to the South Carolina State Society Ball at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Despite the crowded streets, long waits and winter cold, many folks felt giddy as they made instant friends and celebrated a spontaneous Mardi Gras on the Potomac.

Paulette Hallman, a second-grade teacher at Oakdale Elementary School in Rock Hill, S.C., said the four hours she'd waited in line on the street flew by because she was having so much fun.

"No one here is strangers!" Hallman said. "It's like a reunion of the whole American family!"

Spratt, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said none of the previous six presidential inaugurations he'd attended in his more than quarter-century in Washington compared with this one.

"Never have I seen anything like this outpouring," Spratt said.

Spratt, who attended a free concert Sunday at which some of today's biggest stars performed at the Lincoln Memorial, said he wondered whether Obama could meet all the hopes being invested in him.

"Expectations are enormously high," Spratt said. "My only concern is that they are too high."

Dottie Benjamin never could have dreamed of a day like today in 1960 when she and 122 other black students marched through downtown Columbia, S.C.

As they demanded equal rights for blacks — to attend the same schools and eat at the same restaurants as whites — onlookers threw eggs and yelled epitaphs, Benjamin recalled.

The 123 protesters were arrested. Now, nearly 49 years later, a black man will lead the country.

"Sometimes I think about it and I just cry because it's almost unbelievable," Benjamin said. "It's thrilling."

Benjamin, thanks to a ticket from Spratt, will sit in the VIP section to watch the inauguration.

So will Kim Davis, an Iraq war veteran with disabilities. Davis was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after pulling combat duty in Iraq soon after the March 2003 invasion. Her life since then has been difficult. Obama's election and inauguration have helped her feel better.

"To me, it's a sense of rebirth," Davis said. "Just to have an African-American president, it's amazing! I never thought in my life that we would have one. Finally, I believe."

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