Conservation Alabama Goes to DC
Conservation Alabama’s outreach director, Lindsay Waits, visited DC this week for the inauguration of President Obama. This blog post outlines her experience.
Selma, Alabama – March 2007
On a just-warm-enough spring day in March 2007, I made a short trip from Auburn to Selma, Alabama. The occasion was the commemoration of Bloody Sunday, and two presidential candidates were in town that day – Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
I vividly remember the conversation in the car as my friends and I traveled from Montgomery to Selma. They went on and on about the merits of Obama, while I struggled to pronounce his name correctly. They truly believed that he would be the next President; I was skeptical, to say the least.
We arrived at Brown Chapel AME to a crowd of hundreds. I thought, “Wow, what a crowd for a man who I don’t really know that much about.” Ha.
When Obama emerged from behind the doors of Brown Chapel, I realized that there was something unique about him, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Later, I realized that it is was utter confidence. I believe now that even on that day, a year and a half before he was elected President, Barack Obama knew that he was going to change the world. After hearing him speak on that beautiful day in March, and after holding hands with the hundreds of people around me to sing “We Shall Overcome,” I was convinced, as well.
He spoke of the “hope gap,” the “empathy gap,” and the ways that he wanted to make us a kinder society. But what I took from his speech was the general thesis of his dialogue. I will always remember that day as the day that a man stood before an audience and told them that he was going to engineer the train that changed the world – and if we wanted to join him, we’d better jump aboard, because he was leaving the station that day.
And then he did.
September – November, 2008
A year and a half later, I found myself working for the political party that represented Senator Barack Obama in his presidential campaign. The tone of every single day was set by poll numbers, appearances, and press releases. I get caught up in the work, the sweat, the acute fear that disappointment was possible on November 4th. But the numbers rolled in on Election Day, and the disappointment never came.
That man on the steps in Selma became President Barack Obama.
And the inauguration havoc began. After the campaign, I no longer worked in politics. Would I recieve a ticket? Could I even afford a hotel room at the outrageous prices I was hearing about? What if I found another job before then – would it allow me to take off for the trip?
I was lucky enough to find two other brave souls to shoulder the responsibility of paying for a shared room in Arlington, VA. Our original plans involved driving to DC, stopping halfway to stay with friends in Charlotte. Then, our schedules didn’t work out – we now had to fly. Plane ticket prices were increasing by the minute. We still didn’t have tickets to the swearing-in ceremony.
Finally, we found affordable flights to DC. Sure, we had to leave Auburn at 2 AM to arrive at the ATL airport in time. AND, we were going to be in serious danger of missing our flight from DC if we stayed at the inauguration too long, but we would just have to deal with it! We were going to the inauguration!
A week before we left, I received an envelope in the mail from the Presidential Inaugural Committee – they decided to send me some tickets, after all. We purchased tickets to the Texas State Society’s inaugural party – the Black Tie and Boots Ball (and yes, they do actually wear boots under ball gowns). We were also going to a gala at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. My new boss gave me the day off. The local newspaper covered our trip. I bought three gowns, returned two, and then bought another one. Things were looking up.
January 19, 2009
I woke up at 1 AM. My friend, Missy, and I left Auburn at 2. We achieved the impossible – two twenty-something girls with balls to attend took zero luggage to DC. We each had four layers of clothes on our bodies – my jeans barely zipped and I had a little trouble bending my knees, but otherwise, all was good. We carried our ball gowns on the plane in one garment bag and used our very best authoritative voices when a flight attendant tried to question us. By 9 AM, we were on the DC Metro headed to our hotel.
Not willing to miss a moment, we picked up another friend and took off to see the sights in DC. There were people hanging out all around, but nothing like the crowds that I expected to see.
When we arrived at the World War II Memorial, visitors were having pictures taken with their home state’s monument. Only 2 states had people lined up for the opportunity – Alabama and Texas. Now, I have always been known for my amazing inability to disguise emotion; however, I saw quite a few Alabamians with proud tears in their eyes at the sight. One thing was certain – Alabama was fully present to see history made in DC this Tuesday.
The balls were amazing that night. We drank pink champagne and danced to Louis Armstrong and several country music acts. We ran into people we knew and took pictures with people we didn’t know. Chef Daniel Young served up an array of yummy food for carnivores and vegetarians alike (social gatherings are always a concern if you don’t eat meat, so this was a fantastic added bonus). The metro ended up being the only problem. For a reason I still don’t understand, DC opted to limit subway service after a certain hour, even though balls were held all across DC until all hours of the night! Moral of the story – do not attend a ball via subway. Lesson learned.
January 20, 2009 – Inauguration Day
We were exhausted, but exhilarated. I turned CNN on first thing and saw a reporter interviewing a guy named James from…Anniston, Alabama. We arrived at the gate for silver ticket holders a few hours early to make sure we got a good spot. Then we turned around to go to the back of the line. We walked a block. 2 blocks. 4 blocks. At 5 blocks, we realized that we simply were not going inside. So we made our way to the National Mall to watch the event unfold via teleprompter. There were people everywhere. Old, young, black, white, in carseats and wheelchairs alike. They were jumping blockades, climbing trees, and perching themselves on top of portable toilets. Mob-like, but oh-so-jubilant, everyone was happy to be there, but they were also intent on getting to the best viewing spot, even if it meant sitting on top of a fluorescent blue sewage receptacle on wheels.
There were 2 million people on the National Mall Tuesday. And when the first words were spoken at the ceremony, all 2 million came to a dead silence. They stopped in the middle of the streets and listened.
Missy and I, on the other hand, were about to miss a flight. So, with ears and hearts wide open, we began to beg our way through the masses. Subways were closed all around the Capital, and we walked 12 blocks to catch a cab to Dulles.
Our cab was the only car on the freeway for the majority of the 20 minute ride to the airport. And when our driver turned the radio on, NPR was broadcasting live from an inaugural celebration in….Birmingham, Alabama.
So many emotions are tied to witnessing history. I was excited to be there, but wanted my husband there, too. My presence also represented my dad, who is the only reason I ever became involved in politics. I carried the spirit of my deceased grandfather, who served his country in WWII, and my mom, an RN who knows firsthand how many uninsured Americans there actually are. I took pictures for my four nephews – one who was only a week old on the big day.
And I was so proud of my state. Alabama, so often discounted and unrecognized, showed up to bear witness Tuesday. Alabama refused to be ignored. And while I was in DC yesterday when the beginning of a new era arrived, and while it was an unforgettable experience for which I am grateful…this journey really began in Selma.
So, after leaving the Atlanta airport and crossing the Georgia line, I came to a startling realization: I had never been so happy, so utterly proud, to be back in Alabama.