WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The first leg of a presidential pilgrimage from the heart of Georgia peach country to ground not far from America’s first English settlement at Jamestownwas, for 50 travelers with ties to Fort Valley State University, an all-night tour-bus journey through the modern-day Deep South.
The mood onboard was one of introspection laced with anticipation. A new president will be sworn in this morning. That new president also will be the nation’s first black man to take the oath of office.
After a day-and-evening motel break in southeast Virginia, the midstate contingent hopes to be within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol to bear witness today.
Since Sunday evening, a banner on the side of their bus with the name “Barack Obama” on it has spread their hero’s name through parts of four states.
Black travelers young and old, some of them students at the college, some alums, some with other ties, are along for what many of them are calling the ride of their lifetimes.
So far, their charter has cruised within blocks of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home. It has zipped them past the exit for the Billy Graham Library. It has whisked them by highway billboards promising everything from “fresh new bedding” to “free refills on everything.”
Late Sunday, a DVD of Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus” played on the bus’s overhead monitors. A character in the movie, referring to the Million Man March, mentioned how he was bound for “the miracle on the Mall.”
Riders on the charter Sunday night could relate. Even if network TV news will offer up-close pictures of today’s historic swearing in, the moment may still be best captured in person. And then retold time and again, passed down through time in families through great-great-great kinfolk:
“My daddy was there.”“My grandpa was there.”“My grandpa’s grandpa was there.”
And on it will go, down through the generations, surviving on word of mouth long after the photo albums have been lost and the devices used to play the souvenir DVDs are obsolete.
Sunday night, three rows from the front of the bus, 22-year-old Chris Moore Jr., a mass communications major, said, “If you miss this, that’s it. Why sit at home and watch it when you’ve got the opportunity to be a part of something so spectacular?”
At breakfast Monday morning in a Williamsburg restaurant, Moore, an Eagle Scout who says he may join the military after college, said the trip to D.C. to take in Obama’s triumph “proves that ‘I have a dream’ wasn’t just a speech.”
“It’s everything,” he said. “It’s spiritual. It’s emotional. ... For a lot of the older individuals going, ones who have lived through the civil rights struggle, this has to make them feel like they can leave this Earth a better place.”
Moore, who graduated from Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit and moved south with his mother, said, “I want to be looked at as making a difference – even at 22. I want to show that males my age don’t just sit and watch BET and shout at and disrespect the ladies.”Donald Cooper, 47, the tour bus driver, figured his passengers had yet to encounter the inspirational rush that today’s ceremony may bring.
“They’re gonna really feel it when they go to the (National) Mall and see all the people there for the same reason they are,” Cooper said. “Right now they are nervous and anxious and waiting. But once they see all those smiling faces they’ll be able to explain it better.”
Maresa Wright, 21, a student at Central Georgia Technical College, said, “I think it will kick in once we get there. I’m excited to see what it will be like.”
Wright’s grandmother, Marye, who graduated from Fort Valley State in 1959, rode beside her, four rows behind the driver.
Marye Wright is from Albany. Piano legend Ray Charles was her second cousin. Wright, a caterer by trade, used to feed the civil rights marchers in Dougherty County. She heard Martin Luther King Jr. preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
“My reason for coming,” she said, “is to be a part of a new beginning.”