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Feeling in Washington is that of excitement, as millions await history

Barack Obama will be inaugurated today, and Capitol Hill is teeming with excitement. Washington is a whir of cell phones, long wool scarves, police with flashing lights, big armored vehicles that look ready for warfare, barricades, happy people and blue Obama woolen skull caps. Lots of them.

“The diversity of people who are here to celebrate, it’s amazing,” said Antonio Owens, area vice president of operations for the North and East Columbus Boys & Girls Clubs. “The atmosphere is calm. People are friendly and delightful. It dispels all the myths of how people act in these environments.”

Owens traveled to Washington with six local students — three boys and three girls — arranged through private donations and the Boys Clubs. “This is a great opportunity for the young people of Columbus to see how we have grown,” he said.

The theme of America’s evolution was echoed by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who talked Monday of the notion that America is becoming a more perfect union:

“This is a country that accepted slavery in the beginning, that fought a war over slavery in the middle. And tomorrow will swear in its first African-American president. It’s a testament to the greatness of this nation.”

Brookstone graduate Elizabeth Swift, a May 2008 graduate of the University of Georgia, works for Isakson as an assistant scheduler. She was beaming at his office Monday as she talked about the inauguration. “I’m happy to be here in all this excitement,” said Swift, who gave up her ticket so another Isakson constituent could attend.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, recalled singing at the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a member of the Morehouse glee club. He said of this moment in American history: “Forty years ago Dr. King spoke of getting to the promised land. And now we have arrived at the promised land — we have a president elected not because of the color of his skin, but because of his ability to bring us together, to build common ground, and to articulate common aspirations.”

For Zuhair Hasan and 71 of his Columbus High School classmates, the decision to travel to Washington for the inauguration was made last summer, before the world knew who the 44th president of the United States would be. The fact that the nation put a black man in office was all the more thrilling for the 17-year-old senior. “When I saw the candidates running I thought that would be really cool if something historic happened — and you know, it happened, so I was like, ‘All right!’”

Ebone Monk, a 14-year-old freshman, echoed Hasan’s sentiments.

“It’s just cool to see a person getting sworn in,” Ebone said. “It’s history. No matter if it was Barack Obama or McCain it didn’t matter. I still wanted to come.”

Ebone said she wanted to experience everything an inauguration and a week in the nation’s capital has to offer. Her group visited the Smithsonian museums Sunday and attended the Smithsonian Inaugural Ball on Monday.

Alan Smith, a junior and a JROTC member, said though he’s been to Washington four times before, he’s never visited the Museum of American History.

“I love American history,” Alan said. “It’s my favorite subject so I really wanted to come here. This is exciting for me.”

Sophomore Warren Steele, 14, said the crowds can be overwhelming at times and the weather cold, but it’s all worth it.

“It’s been pretty fun,” Warren said. “There’s a lot of people, so it’s kind of hard to get pictures and someone bumped into me so I broke my camera, but I got some pictures so it was good.

“I know it’s cold and everything but it’s historical and I want to tell my kids and grandkids that I was there and I was part of history.”

Mattie Arrington, executive director of Children and Family Connection in Phenix City, said Washington has been energized by the millions of people who believe Obama can lead the country in a different direction.

“I think that this is an adventure and everyone that’s here is on the same chord,” Arrington said. “It’s a historical event, but more than that we actually believe that we have hope. That Barack Obama is going to lead us out of the trouble. That with our help, of course, he’s going to pull us together so we’ll all work for a common purpose. The most important thing I’m hopeful for is if he’s really going to do some things to forward the middle class.”

Arrington also marveled at the number of people milling around the city and the volume of Obama-themed trinkets being sold around the National Mall.

“They were selling anything Obama,” she said. “Anything you can imagine putting his name or face on they were selling it.”

Arrington also said she was impressed with how strangers were relating to each other through the common bond of being part of such a significant event.

“They’re not just talking to their group,” she said. “They’re talking to everybody. It’s just well wishes for everybody. People are just sharing. That’s what you see, hopeful and encouraged and happiness.”