It was a day filled with joyous song and heartfelt prayers, stark memories of the past and high hopes for the future–all on the birthday of a civil rights legend and on the eve of a historic presidential inauguration. More than 1,000 people of all ages and every walk packed the ballroom of J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington at each of the People’s Inaugural Project’s two Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, which included hundreds of underprivileged individuals from across the country as special guests.
An interfaith prayer breakfast kicked off the festivities with a spirit-filled choir and selections by Grammy-winning gospel artist Shirley Caesar. The Rev. Howard-John Wesley, pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., roused the audience with his sermon, “Mark This Moment.” He reminded attendees that in the midst of celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African American president, “the place of promise will not be handed over on a silver platter.” Yet, “let this moment remind you that with God all things are possible.”
The need to remember that Obama’s election doesn’t mean all is well with the world was echoed by Martin Luther King III at a luncheon commemorating the 80th birthday of his father. “We can’t celebrate the King holiday; we observe it,” he said. “We can’t celebrate as long as 47 million people don’t have health insurance. We can’t celebrate when we pay athletes more than we pay teachers in a lifetime.”
Monday’s events marked the middle of a long inaugural weekend. Virginia businessman Earl W. Stafford Sr. and the Stafford Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit group that assists the disadvantaged, footed the $1.6 million bill. “I hope individuals will be inspired and re-inspired,” Stafford said of the weekend. “You can still go out and do good.”
The foundation’s special guests, who were selected by dozens of local and national organizations, were thrilled to be among those who got the call to come to Washington for the all-expenses paid trip and weekend. Among the highlights: viewing the inaugural parade from a primo spot overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue and going to an inaugural ball decked out in gowns and tuxedos, courtesy of the Stafford Foundation and a host of corporate and individual donations.
Ronald Swatzyna, 83, said he was glad to make the trip from Memphis, Tenn., with his wife, Helen. “I have high hopes for Obama,” said the decorated World War II veteran and retired pressman. “He has his hands full, and we have to help him.”
“This is awesome,” said Carmen McNairy, 37, of East St. Louis, Ill., of her inaugural experience. Gushing that she felt like Cinderella at the ball, the single mother of three said, “I’m looking for my horse and carriage.”
But the belle of the ball may be 106-year-old Rachel Tucker of Alexandria, Va., located not far down the Potomac River from the nation’s capital. She was treated to a special limo ride to downtown Washington and will be dressed by Nordstrom department store. “I’ve been so happy,” said Tucker, who also said that she never expected to live to see an African American president of the United States. “God intended for me to see this.”
Barbranda Lumpkins Walls is features editor of the AARP Bulletin.
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