Freedom riders 

Hope reigns on the road to Obama's encore.

A few weeks back, Arkansas Times editor Lindsey Millar hit the staff with a proposal: Did anyone want to take a seat on one of the buses chartered by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and ride from Little Rock to Washington, D.C., with a group of Arkansans for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama?

I had to think about it.

There's a reason I'd never been further northeast than Knoxville and no further west as an adult than Lawton, Okla. I hate strange bathrooms and strange beds. I hate arranging my toothbrush and travel-size toiletries on hotel vanities. To boot, a little figuring found that it would be over 22 hours to D.C. by bus.

On the other hand, I'm a Democrat, and I know that while America loves to give presidents two terms, they usually don't give the same party three or more. There's every chance in the world that I will be north of 50 years old before another president is elected who I'd actually want to see inaugurated.

Above all that, though, was the idea of standing shoulder to shoulder with people from this state I love — some of them old enough to remember the Central High Crisis in 1957, others young enough that their first vote was cast for Obama — when we gave our first black president an encore.

So I said I'd do it. I would go. It was, as a writer much better than me once said: the best of times, and the worst of times.

Welcome to the Tour Bus California

This is the bus in the middle of the night, droning east: black hallway where the minutes shuffle past, full of the pained little noises of sleepers and the whine of the big diesel engine out back. There was nothing to see other than the occasional spray of city lights, or cars swimming dreamily into and out of the glare from the running lamps. We had loaded the six buses in Little Rock at 5 p.m. on Saturday, and were gone by 6 — around 330 souls, with over 100 of those being students from UCA, Philander Smith, Shorter College, Harding and Little Rock's eStem public charter school.

Standing around waiting to feed our bags to the bus, I'd talked to DeKevious Wilson, a grad student at Arkansas Tech University. He said he was going on the trip with friends, but would have gone regardless. While Obama's first term hadn't been flawless in his eyes, Wilson said he believed the president had done the best he could.

"To be in the same air that he and the first family are breathing, that's good enough for me," Wilson said. "It would make me feel like an American. Of course, I feel like an American every time I vote, but just to be there and see that history will make me even prouder to be an American."

Loaded up, I soon found myself pressed in closer than I ever wanted to be to Times photographer Brian Chilson, both of us crammed into the very last seat of bus No. 6. There were televisions, but somehow we wound up watching the same two-hour Gospel Music Awards broadcast twice, on a loop. Later on, we would watch the worst comedy in the history of the world (synopsis: Martin Lawrence stars as a rough-edged NBA coach who takes on a misfit team of junior high basketball players and makes them champions!) and a miniseries about The Temptations, which was a bit too much Temptation even for a diehard fan of "My Girl" and "Papa was a Rollin' Stone."

The schedule said we were supposed to stop in Memphis for dinner, but we wound up driving straight through Tennessee other than two brief, sleepy layovers in pitch-black highway rest stops, where big rigs dozed and grumbled alongside our buses in the dark. The miles dragged. At one point, deep down in the night, Brian turned to me after 100 miles of silence and — paraphrasing The Eagles song about the famous hotel where you can check out but never leave — intoned: "Welcome to the Tour Bus California." And so Bus No. 6 shall ever be called in my memory.

All the way there and back, we sat on the bus behind Jackie Walker of Little Rock. When I asked her why it was important enough for her to travel 2,000 miles by bus to see the inaugural, she said. "This is his last time running, and I just really wanted to be here. It's very important to me. ... This is something I'll never be able to do again. This is once in a lifetime." Walker said she'd been happy with Obama as president, and was glad the country gave Obama a second term.

"He has done so much in four years, so why not give him four more years to accomplish more?" she said. "I hope he'll be more forceful. With the Republicans, he's able to say there are certain things he won't back down off of."

The road stretched out before us. But that night, we would lay down our heads just outside the city where Lincoln wooed the better angels of our nature, where he freed a people, where he held a cleaved nation together and where he died. The next morning, we would walk the streets of the city where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream, where John F. Kennedy asked us to ask not, and where he lay in the grave. On the way to the National Mall the next morning, we would pass the gray bulk of the Pentagon, where a jetliner tore a hole some years back. A thousand-thousand other American moments, all focused there through a limestone lens. And then my traveling companions and I would see history done again before dusk.

We, the People

Inauguration day, we were out the hotel door and on the bus in the dark. The riders were silent, reverent. On the way, I spoke quietly with Nathaniel Noble, one of an extended family of nine native Arkansans who'd come for the inaugural.

When he was a child, Noble said, the dream was: Every boy can grow up to be president. "Now it's every woman, every color," he said. "You have examples of that. You have Hillary Clinton who got so close, you have Barack Obama who actually made it. When I was a kid, it was a dream for me, but for my son, who is 14 years old, it's a reality for him."

Noble was in high school when Jesse Jackson ran, so he said he always believed he'd see a black president in his lifetime. "I was never one who said it couldn't happen, but now it's not an issue," he said. "Not only can it happen, it did happen. It happened twice. Even more, he's able to transcend color because he's doing the job of president. He's doing a presidential job."

Tickets to the inaugural in hand and the buses parked at RFK Stadium, we walked three miles to the Mall. Along the way, I walked and talked with Jared Lareau, president of the University of Central Arkansas's Young Democrats. Asked to give Obama a grade on his first term, Lareau said he'd give the president a solid A considering the hyper-partisan climate in Washington.

"Look at health care reform," Lareau said. "That's one of the most significant changes in the past 20 years. Bill Clinton tried to do it and even he failed ... I really like his new Cabinet. I really like John Kerry for secretary of state, so I really think his second term is going to be another A. I think he's going to position the party even better for another Democrat in 2016."

While Lareau agreed that many young people — even those who lean left — have been heard to complain that Obama didn't do more with his first four years, he said that attitude doesn't take into account what Obama has faced.

"Young people who are disappointed in the president don't understand the realities of what a president can do and what legislation he can push," Lareau said. "Either people are too apathetic or too ignorant of politics in the real world to understand how much he has done."

Soon, the dome of the Capitol rose up between the townhouses. We worked our way through security, and at last we were there, standing on the Mall in the cold daylight between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Seagulls turned and wheeled over the pool before Capitol Hill. The balcony where the president and dignitaries would appear was lost in the far distance for cheap-seat ticket holders like us, but there were Jumbotrons and big speakers set up, and we were glad to be there.

We found college student Arzalious Davis in the throng. A native of Helena, Davis was one of 100 Arkansas students chosen by the MLK Commission to attend on the strength of an essay he wrote. Davis, who grew up in poverty, said that when he heard he was going to Washington, it was like he'd hit the lottery.

"I was like: I'm going to see President Obama's inauguration — to see this, in person," he said. "I'm 20, and I voted for him, and it's a great feeling to see him have four more years and to visit this wonderful city."

Asked if he thought Obama's re-election meant we're finally getting past race in this country, Davis said he believes it does. "You can actually see the change," he said. "There's progress being made now. We were watching the polls, and we were nervous, but I kept my faith and he won. That lets me know it's going to be all right ... . When you grow up with nothing, it makes you want to strive for more. That's what I did, and that's what he did too. He grew up with practically nothing, and look at what he did."

Standing nearby was Chris Melendez. Born in the United States to parents who came here from Guatemala, Melendez, 19, cast his first presidential vote for Obama last year. "Before this, I wasn't really informed about anything political," he said. "I wanted to use this as a start so I can become more informed when I vote."

Melendez said he has followed Obama's progress on immigration issues, and said that Obama has accomplished a lot in that regard considering his opposition in Congress. "With his second term, he'll actually be able to do a lot more of what he actually wants to do," Melendez said, "because he won't have to worry about public opinion and re-election. He's got it already. So I'm pretty sure we'll see a lot more done with immigration reform."

Soon, the Mall was so packed it was hard to move. Inching through the crowd, we came upon Little Rock civil rights activist Johnny Hasan, who was standing below one of the Jumbotrons with his friend Odessa Darrough. Hasan said that he was in Washington in the 1990s for the inaugurations of his friend Bill Clinton, and was excited and proud to be there for what he jokingly called "The Second Coming of Obama."

"He fought the fight, and he established those things that were possible which were possible with the opposition he had," Hasan said. "This term, he's going to have to do an even better job of negotiating with those who oppose his policies, but that's the goal of any president. His legacy will be a part of the history of America."

Hasan said that Obama's election and re-election proved we are finally embracing the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

"The challenge is that people are judged by the content of the character, according to Dr. Martin Luther King," Hasan said. "In America, Obama represents the manifestation of that. The moment we're celebrating today is also Dr. Martin Luther King's holiday. So in my opinion, the content of his character was what brought him to be the leader he is, for the free world."

Darrough said she wanted to be part of the day to help Obama know that the country is ready to support him in making a difference. She rated his first term as excellent.

"We elected him not only because he's African-American," Darrough said, "but because of everything else he brings to the table: intellect, caring, loving, wanting to bring the United States back to the top, where we were in the past. With him as the chief leader of our country, we will get there."

Unable to budge by then without stepping on toes, Brian and I stood there near Hasan and Darrough as the dignitaries came to the podium, the crowd cheering the First Family and offering up a chorus of boos for House Speaker John Boehner and Congressman Eric Cantor. And when Obama appeared — soon to be sworn in on the Bibles of Lincoln and MLK, and to declaim: "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal, is the star that guides us still" — such a cheer rose from the assembled million that I would not have believed the sound of it had we not been there.

One America, two men

There is more to the story, of course, but I'll let Brian's photos say the rest. The story is: we were there, and saw it done, and laid down that night glad to have seen it.

The next morning, we were up again before daybreak. With the bus idling at the curb in front of the hotel, ready to swallow another full day of our lives in exchange for having seen the previous day's events, I talked to Lloyd and Kellie Noble of Pine Bluff — other members of the extended Noble family.

"I wanted my kids to have the experience," said Kellie, who works as a kindergarten teacher, "to be able to say: I went to Washington, D.C. Not only do they get to read about it in history books, they get to say they were actually here."

Lloyd, Kellie's husband, owns a small construction company, and attended the inauguration in 2008. He said the inauguration felt different this time — more hopeful, like change is finally happening. Obama's re-election proves that color is gone, he said, and that we're finally ready to become the One America that Martin Luther King talked about.

"We all say Obama is 'a black president,' but we're looking for a leader," he said. "At this point, we can't worry about color. We need a leader. When you read the Bible stories, they say: 'God, give us a king! Give us somebody to lead, because we're in trouble.' When the people of this country realized they were in trouble, that's what they looked for."

He turned, and glanced out at the bus in front of the hotel. Arkansas was calling us both hard by then. A youthful 64, Noble said he believed his children and grandchildren would visit a memorial to Barack Obama on the Mall someday, after history had its say. The way he looked when he said it made me see it with him.

"That's going to be beautiful," he said. "You look at King and then you look at Barack. I've heard them called two black men, standing together. Yeah, they're two black men, but let's say this: 'Two men.' Leave the color out. Let's say: 'Two men.' "

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