The charter bus rolled all night, through the cities of Montgomery, Atlanta and Richmond, stopping only for bathroom breaks and an IHOP breakfast. A few riders watched movies and listened to music. Most slept the entire way.
But yesterday afternoon, as the weary travelers rolled onto 14th Street, past the Holocaust Museum, the Washington Monument and the Mall, 18-year-old Darianne Allen began to cry.
She stared at all the buses, cars and people in the streets as her classmates pulled out cameras and pressed their faces to the glass.
"The moment just hit me," Allen said, looking at her mother and wiping away tears. "It's really real."
It was the culmination of a 16-hour journey, a grinding two-year campaign and at least four decades of struggle to turn the voting rights earned 44 years ago into something few thought imaginable. Fittingly, the journey for the students, parents and educators began with this simple prayer: "Jesus, we thank you for having the 44th president of the United States as a black African American."
Theirs was one of thousands of buses that have converged on Washington from across the nation to mark the start of Barack Obama's presidency. They all came for their own reasons, bringing their stories and their hopes to the nation's capital.
Selma, Ala., sent at least three buses. The city's name is seared in the American psyche because of what happened when peaceful marchers were brutally attacked on Bloody Sunday in 1965. The head wounds of John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, are still visible today.
It was Lewis who led more than 600 protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965. The marchers were headed to Montgomery, the state capital, in their campaign for voting rights. Footage of Alabama state troopers attacking the peaceful march helped quicken the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today in Selma, the inauguration of Obama stands as a testament to what's possible when little people stand up. Locals contend that without the struggle for voting rights centered in their small city, there would be no Barack Obama.
The 40 students, parents and educators who left Selma High on the bus Sunday night carried with them the soaring hopes from Obama's election and the hard realities of their lives. Selma still wrestles with issues of equality, education and jobs. So much unfinished business remains from the civil rights years.
Denise Roy, who works at Alabama State University in Montgomery, says progress at home has been stalled by a lack of unity of purpose among black residents, who make up 70 percent of Selma's population.
"We are too easy to get complacent with the little bit we have," said Roy, 43, who is planning an anti-violence campaign in Selma.
Selma High's bookkeeper, Nadine Sturdivant, understands Roy's frustration. She was 2 years old on Bloody Sunday when mounted police stormed into her parents' back yard chasing protesters. But now her concerns are black-on-black violence in her home town. A school dance last weekend ended in a brawl, and six students were suspended. Some of the kids on the bus had felt the sting of pepper spray when police were subduing the other students.
She and her daughter, the homecoming queen, got on the bus to be a part of this historical moment.
It's not just violence locally that concerns her; it's what's going on in Iraq. "People want to see us come out of this war," she said. "What are we fighting for? Why are all these people getting killed? We need change."
A friend of hers, Lesia James, a Selma High administrator, planned the Washington trip. Last summer, the two were on different sides in the city's mayoral race -- itself a symbol of progress: Both candidates were black. Sturdivant's pick came out on top, defeating James Perkins Jr., who became the city's first black mayor in 2000.
"I beat her," Sturdivant said, playfully.
"She got me this time," James said, brushing off the loss.
It's good to be able to fight about electoral politics and not have to worry -- as their parents did -- about just having the right to vote, the women acknowledge.
Whatever political differences they have, the women are dedicated to the students. Both want them to have a sense of history and a foundation for success. But the challenges are significant.
Selma High has until recently struggled to meet statewide academic standards, and the school is nearly as segregated now as it was 50 years ago.
"I don't really have white friends," said 11th-grader Roneika Deloach. "I do have one white friend at Selma High. I think she is the only" white student.
"It's two at the school," a classmate chimed in.
Deloach is a member of the National Honor Society and student government. She's looking for a way out of Selma.
"Selma is a good place to live if you are retired, but for the children, it's not a lot to do," said Deloach, who plans to move to Huntsville.
Maya Rudolph, 16, agreed.
"It's not a good city for youth. It's a good city for the old people."
The chaperons, most in their 40s, cringed at being thought of as old but did not protest her basic point.
The sour economy is shuttering Selma's businesses and forcing furloughs, and African Americans make up the majority of those who live in entrenched poverty.
Obama's populist message, however, trumped Selma's problems for mothers such as Donna Allen, 39, who trekked to Washington with her daughter, Darianne.
Donna Allen has two younger sons, ages 12 and 7, and works for a youth development program. She often meets students with serious problems inflicted by adults: bad marriages, situations of abuse.
But hers is a journey of hope.
"He gave us something different to look forward to," she said of Obama. "I want my daughter to have a sense of feeling that even though people struggle, there is always a chance that you could be someone great."