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Obama leads off civil rights tribute at parade

President Barack Obama led off his inaugural parade down America's main street that paid homage to pioneers who paved the way for the nation's first black chief executive.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama led off his inaugural parade down America's main street that paid homage to pioneers who paved the way for the nation's first black chief executive. Re-enactors from a black Civil War regiment. World War II's surviving Tuskegee Airmen.

Freedom Riders from the civil rights movement. They were Obama's nod to the past among 13,000 parade participants from all 50 states who traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

And winding up the two-hour pageantry, a look to the future: a NASA lunar rover, the kind that may ferry astronauts on their planned 2020 return to the moon.

About 15 minutes into the parade, Obama and his wife, Michelle, stepped out of the limousine with a USA 1 license plate to rousing cheers and greeted part of the enthusiastic crowd.

A couple of moments later, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, joined them on the walk.

Along the way, hundreds of people who had been packed on rooftops and balconies broke into loud cheers. They got an unobstructed view of the parade from above the large crowd.

The Obamas walked a few blocks before getting back in. They got out again as the limousine neared the parade reviewing stand in front of the White House and got the same loud reaction.

The Obamas first spent some time inside the White House, then emerged from their new home — the new president holding the hand of his younger daughter, Sasha, and the new first lady walking with daughter Malia. The family was met with hugs from many of the VIPs gathered inside the reviewing stand.

The 1.7-mile route was jammed with joyous but frozen onlookers who'd lined up in many cases before dawn to secure a good vantage point of Obama's motorcade and the following two hours of pageantry. People peered from the windows of nearly every building, while others watched from balconies and rooftops.

"He's the people's president," said Patricia Correia, 68, of Lancaster, Calif. "He would not be the type to sit here in the car. He knows that we waited out here this long."

At 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, most people cleared the bleachers immediately after Obama walked past, not even waiting for the Bidens, who walked much of the parade route. Asked if it was worth the wait, Jarita Moore, 28, of Alexandria, Va., said: "I can't feel my butt. My legs are numb. I got a picture of him in the car. I don't know."

But, she said later, it was "a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Bands from five historically black colleges and the nation's first public high school for African-Americans are among more than 40 musical troupes to step down Pennsylvania Avenue.

At points along the route, spectators bundled in parkas and blankets were 10 deep, and at one spot people danced in place to the "Electric Slide" to keep warm in temperatures that stayed just below freezing. When the parade started at 3:35 p.m., the temperature had dropped to 27 degrees. Chilly, but far from the record of minus 2 degrees at Ronald Reagan's second inauguration in 1985.

"I came because it's about us making history," said Latori Brown, a 21-year-old black woman from Sumter, S.C., who'd been waiting since dawn and shivered under a blanket. "I'm not worried about the cold. It's worth it."

The parade marked a first: the Lesbian and Gay Band Association marched, the first lesbian and gay group in history to participate in a president's inaugural parade.

The World Famous Lawn Rangers from Amazing Arcola were also there. From Obama's home state of Illinois, the group's members push mowers decorated with stuffed beavers, bowling balls, cowboy hats, lounge chairs. Its motto? "You're only young once but you can always be immature."

Tight security along the parade route near the White House on 15th Street caused a glaring disparity in the density of the crowd lining the sidewalks. The prime bleacher streets on the south side of the route were nearly empty just minutes before Obama left the Capitol, while on the north side, spectators were packed in six rows deep.

Charles Ramsey, Washington, D.C. police chief during the President George Bush's 2001 and 2005 inaugurations, said the size of the crowds Tuesday created major challenges for security teams. Still, Ramsey, now Philadelphia's police chief, said he misses being involved in the planning.

"It's a unique experience," said Ramsey, who attended Obama's swearing-in ceremony.

Fran Bjork, 36, a substance abuse counselor from Baltimore and a self-described political junkie, brought her son and daughter to the parade and she told them not to get their hopes up too high.

"I told them, you're not going to see anything and you're not going to hear anything. It's not about that. They get to say 'I was there when ...'"