ATLANTA — As she watched Barack Obama descend the steps of the U.S. Capitol to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, 107-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper leaned forward in her seat, grinned and let out a contented sigh.
One of her grandsons asked, "How do you feel about having a black president?"
"Well," Cooper said at her home on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta, "I helped put him there."
And so she had.
It was not just Cooper. It was all the men and women of the black generations who endured the cruelties of Jim Crow, who knew the indignity of separate drinking fountains and the terror of snarling dogs. They fought back with sit-ins and boycotts and ballots.
On Tuesday, with weathered hands and an excitement that belied their age, they applauded Obama — and the role they played in sending one of their own to the White House.
"I was hoping for a great change that would happen in my day," said Cooper, whose story was highlighted in Obama's speech the night he won the election. "I put my thoughts into ideas pointed towards better days for our people."
Mary K. Jones, a 78-year-old retired university professor in Detroit, has come a long way from the sweltering heat and segregation of Arkansas. She grew up there, along the banks of the Mississippi River, on the same 40 acres her great-grandmother — a former slave — received from the U.S. government.
"Jim Crow and segregation were something we were born into. It was just a way of life," Jones said Tuesday. "We lived in a certain area. We all knew where we could go or couldn't go. You stayed where you were. But they (whites) were in their place, too."
'I feel very full'
When Obama took the oath of office, Jones sat up in her chair, clasped her hands to her chest and smiled.
"There is still integrity. It's not lost," Jones said. "I feel very full."
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Sam Cain stood up and threw his hands in the air, tears streaming down his face after Obama took the oath of office. The 61-year-old South Carolina native was born in the midst of Jim Crow's heyday, barred from eating and drinking with his white neighbors in his Bishopville hometown.
"From the time you're 2 or 3, you know your place," Cain said, though he said he now believes life has changed for his family, his race and all Americans with Obama's election.
"I do believe in my lifetime he can bring this country together," Cain said.
In his inauguration speech, Obama looked to inspire the nation with a "new era of responsibility" and a recognition of how far the nation has come.
"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath," Obama said.
Obama then led an inaugural parade that paid further homage to pioneers in the fight for equality. Re-enactors from a black Civil War regiment, World War II's surviving Tuskegee Airmen and Freedom Riders who battled for civil rights followed the new president's limousine down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.
In Birmingham, Ala., where protesting blacks faced fire hoses and police dogs in the 1960s, thousands gathered in historic Boutwell Auditorium to view the inauguration on a huge video screen. The old hall had the feel of a church revival, with gospel songs and flags waving.
"I never thought it would ever come," said 77-year-old Ted Roberts, who marched in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham when segregationists held power.
At the historically black Alabama State University in Montgomery, Tonea Stewart was among those brought to tears watching the new president take office.
The 60-year-old chair of the theater department grew up in Greenwood, Miss., worked in the civil rights movement and campaigned for Obama. "I knew it would happen, but to see it happen in my lifetime is so powerful and so significant for this whole nation," Stewart said.
'In Our Lifetime' T-shirts
In Fresno, Calif., the Rev. Joseph and Jewellene Richardson watched the ceremony in their apartment at an assisted living facility. Married 63 years, the two met while attending a segregated school in Boynton, Okla.
The reverend's wife, her cane propped on her knee, wore an Obama T-shirt with the words, "In our lifetime." She watched the coverage on the edge of her seat, smiling broadly.
"Through the years we've been saying, 'We shall overcome,' and we overcame," she said. "We are in the winter of our country's history, so there's spring to come."
For those who lived through such trying times, Obama's inauguration was an important link to the past and a moment to reflect on those who didn't live to see this day.
Mississippi state Sen. David Jordan, 75, a longtime voting-rights advocate who has vivid memories from his childhood in the segregated South, said prior to the inauguration that he wished he could speak with his late father.
"The first thing I would say is, 'Daddy, we have an African-American president,'" Jordan said. "He would shout to the top of his voice."
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