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Page last updated at 02:07 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

Obama concert inspires supporters

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Bruce Springsteen, Mary J Blige, Stevie Wonder and U2 perform at the inauguration concert

By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington


United in their desire to witness a historic moment, hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and races gathered under the marble gaze of former President Abraham Lincoln.

"It's a chance to be part of living history," said Audrey Lewis, from Virginia, as she waited for President-elect Barack Obama's welcome concert in Washington to begin.

US President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle in front of the Lincoln Memorial
The festivities took place on steps of Washington's Lincoln Memorial

"I want to be able to share this first-hand with my grandson, who's three years old, for him to have part of his heritage."

Volunteers manning the entrances said spectators had begun arriving at the National Mall soon after 0600, willing to wait for hours to get the best view possible of Mr Obama, less than 48 hours before his inauguration.

They thronged along the sides of the Reflecting Pool leading up to the Lincoln Memorial, where, four decades ago, so many massed to hear the words of Martin Luther King.

The significance of the moment seemed lost on no-one and - despite the line-up of celebrities, Stevie Wonder, Usher, U2's Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce among them - there was no doubt who was the day's real star.

The loudest cheers of the afternoon rang out first when Mr Obama and his family came down the memorial's steps to the stage, and again when he stepped forward to address the crowds.

"In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now," he said. "Our nation is at war. Our economy is in crisis."

Belief

But despite his sombre message, the presence of so many people on a cold winter's day was proof that hope was alive and well, he said.

George E Johnson at the We Are One concert in Washington, 18 January.
It's inspiring to see [Barack Obama] and I think it will have an effect on how we live in this country
George Johnson

"You came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there. There is no obstacle that can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change."

Among those voices was former Sgt First Class George E Johnson, 79, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars who had driven overnight with his four daughters and granddaughter from Columbia, South Carolina, to be in Washington for Mr Obama's big moment.

He had joined the army aged 18 when it was still segregated by colour, he said, and had never thought the day would come when an African-American would be elected president.

"I'm just glad to see things happening how they are because of how far things had to come to get to where we are now," he said.

"The country missed out on a lot, so many things we could have done had it not been for segregation, people not able to live up to their potential.

James Purse and his baby daughter at the We Are One concert in Washington, 18 January.
Four-month-old McKenna Purse was among the youngest in the crowd

"It's inspiring to see [Barack Obama] and I think it will have an effect on how we live in this country from here on in."

Realising the importance of this moment for the next generation, the parents of four-month-old McKenna Purse had decided only last week to bring her all the way from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to the nation's capital.

"It was something she couldn't miss," said her father James, an assistant school principal.

"It's the first major event of her life. She was born 16 September and I think that for her to look back 20 years from now and say 'I was there' will hopefully shape her life."

Patriotism

Against the marble backdrop of the memorial, the assembled stars not only sang but also quoted the speeches of former presidents and recalled past challenges overcome by the nation.

Golfer Tiger Woods praised the patriotism of US servicemen and women, while actor Samuel L Jackson paid tribute to the courage of Rosa Parks and others who had fought for racial equality.

Sandy Clark, Karen Stickney and Sonja Jackson from Atlanta, Georgia.
Many Obama fans came a long way to to take part in the celebrations

"Let freedom ring," shouted Bono several times at the end of his rendition of Pride, a song celebrating Martin Luther King.

The audience, reflecting the part-serious, part-celebratory mood of the occasion, listened quietly to the readings but were quick to start singing and dancing along to patriotic crowd-pleasers such as American Pie and America the Beautiful.

Mr Obama too could be seen on the giant screens set up along the Reflecting Pool, mouthing the words and smiling broadly as old favourites were performed.

It was a sweet moment for the many people watching who had played a part in his election.

Samantha Tkac and Shelagh Worfolk, 16, who helped by handing out campaign leaflets in Virginia, said they were excited just to be there and see Mr Obama in the flesh for the first time.

'Living in hope'

Terri Neal, a 42-year-old human resources director from Kansas City, Missouri, said the beauty of the concert was that anyone - not just the rich and powerful - had been able to feel close to events.

"Of all times in the human era, this is an extraordinary time for people to experience in real life, not to see it on TV but to feel the atmosphere and the energy," she said.

And for Sandy Clark, Karen Stickney and Sonja Jackson, who had made the long drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to be in Washington, the day had been "overwhelming".

"This is phenomenal, this is proof that we as a nation can come together and change you just feel it in the air," said Karen, 53.

And although the tone of Mr Obama's words had been sombre, she said, this reflected his grip on the reality of the economic difficulties currently facing many American people.

"He is sensitive to the fact that hard times lie ahead but hopeful that we can face it and overcome it.

"We were living in fear but now we are living in hope."

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