University of Calgary

Dispatches from Washington

Jan. 19, 2009

Dispatches from Washington

Betsy Jameson, a U of C history professor and Imperial Oil-Lincoln McKay Chair of American Studies, was able to secure a rare ticket to the Barack Obama inauguration celebrations in Washington. These are her thoughts on the historic event.

An African American gentleman named Roderick showed up carrying two signs—one said “Martin Luther King is Smiling” and the other

A gentleman named Roderick showed up carrying two signs—one said “Martin Luther King is Smiling” and the other “One Nation Under a Groove.”  He grabbed me and we held up his sign together. / Photo courtesy of Betsy Jameson

The “real” inaugural festivities began for me on Sunday, Jan. 18. I woke up thinking about the times I was in Washington in the late 1960s. I worked as a student intern for Senator Clifford P. Case of New Jersey for three months in 1967. I remember listening to a young Senator named George McGovern give an anti-war speech on the Senate Floor, and a Senate that had one African American member (Edward Brooks of Massachusetts) and one woman (Margaret Chase Smith of Maine). Today there is still only one African American member, but there are more women in the Senate, and more women and people of color in the House of Representatives.

Six months later I was back in D.C. to work as a research assistant for the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, studying the searing wave of race riots that had torn the nation in the summer of 1967. And there were trips to the Capitol to protest the Vietnam War. It was an era of hope, but of deep division as well. I was thinking about how much hope is riding on this new administration, and how enormous our challenges are—about the need for us all to recommit to the world we hope to achieve, and about the hope that we might see the face of shared humanity in all those faces that seemed so separate forty years ago. 

I took the Metro into Washington from the Maryland suburb where my friend Laura is kindly putting me up this week. The Metro tickets have President-elect Obama’s picture on them, and there was a large poster in the Metro station welcoming guests to the inauguration. We arrived at the Hart Senate Office Building, as instructed, where New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman’s staff promised to be holding my ticket to the inauguration. Eureka. It all worked and I do indeed have a ticket, in the Blue Standing Section on the south (House of Representatives) side of the Capitol. The Senator’s aide shook my hand, which was a bit chilled, and accused me of bringing the cold from Canada. It was above freezing today, and after the past month in Calgary and a frigid trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to consult with the US Park Service, it seemed really pretty mild to me. My down coat helped.

From the Capitol we headed for a celebration concert on the Mall, with a brief detour to get promised souvenirs for friends in Calgary. The kitch is abundant; the crowds hungry to bring something back to the folks in Chicago or South Carolina. Waiting to pay for the promised t-shirts and mug I chat with the woman in front of me who lives in Hyde Park a few blocks from the Obamas.

The scene at the Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial is amazing. An enormous, packed crowd of all ages and all colours, peacefully listening to Garth Brooks and Bono and a host of others. I immediately saw some familiar Maple Leafs, and blundered into three historians from Toronto and Newfoundland (two men with MAs in history, and the sister of one of them, who used to teach in St. John’s and whose brother bought her the trip to Washington for a 50th birthday present.) Then a kid from Winnipeg joined us and gave us all Canadian flag pins.  And THEN a young woman named Olivia joined us—she is from Calgary and, like me, lives in Varsity.  Small worlds abound.

Then the President elect spoke. You could have heard a pin drop. He talked, as he has since his election, about the enormous challenges ahead and his faith that we can meet them because of the energy and commitment of all the people there and all those who worked on his campaign. And he talked about the amazing unity of us all—Black and White, gay and straight, disabled and not—and said that if we can see humanity in all our faces, if we can fix ourselves, we can fix the world. It was the hope I had been feeling that morning, and—not for the last time this week, I’m sure—I started crying, thinking especially about Dr. King’s speech in 1963 from the same place, and how change in fact can happen.

Then we all joined Pete Seeger singing “This land is your land, this land is my land.”  An African American gentleman named Roderick showed up carrying two signs—one said “Martin Luther King is Smiling” and the other “One Nation Under a Groove.”  He grabbed me and we held up his sign together.  And then who knows how many tens of thousands exited peacefully, waiting to get through the small gates in the fences that surround the Mall. One nation under a groove indeed.