National Dispatches: U.S. Welcomes Obama

UPDATED: 5:30 p.m. ET

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President Barack Obama has become the first African-American leader of the United States. People around the nation are finding their own ways to be involved with the celebration. From New York City to Obama's hometown of Chicago to Seattle, NPR reporters are providing updates:

4:30 p.m. CT — Howard Berkes in Coalgate, Okla.:

David Holt is the fire chief in the Coal County, Okla. county seat of Coalgate and one of the very few African-Americans — less than one percent — in the county.

In his cramped office in Coalgate's City Hall, Holt's small TV was tuned to coverage of President Obama's inauguration. "For years and years, it's been 'You're a Democrat. That's the way you need to vote,'" Holt recalls. "And all of a sudden there's this big change."

About three quarters of the county's overwhelmingly Democratic electorate voted for Republican John McCain.

"I think race probably weighs on it as a factor at some point," Holt says. "But then again, it could have been the issues as well."

That's a reference to social issues, including abortion, gay marriage and gun control, that drive people here away from the national Democratic party and liberal presidential candidates.

Still, Holt is stumped about the lopsided Democratic vote for Republican John McCain, especially given decades of strong Democratic voting in Coal County. "That's really odd," he says. "It sticks in my head and it will stick in my head for a long time."

3:30 p.m. CT — David Schaper, in Chicago:

After President Obama uttered the words, "so help me God," a loud cheer went up from several hundred people braving the icy Chicago weather in what's known as Pioneer Court to witness the occasion on Jumbotrons.

Many clapped their mitted and gloved hands together to applaud the new president ... and some even used those mittens and gloves to wipe tears from their eyes.

"I am absolutely thrilled. I can't believe this is happening," said Andrea Myers, who came into the city from far northwest suburban Alden, Ill. She had had tears in her eyes as she watched the historic moment. "We've waited so long. This is really cool."

Other Chicagoans waved signs and flags, and all beamed with the pride of having one of their own now in the White House.

2:15 p.m. MT — Jeff Brady in Denver:

Mexico native Ana Leon became a U.S. citizen in time to vote in November. She says Obama's focus on foreign policy in his inaugural speech was exactly what she wanted to hear.

"I feel like in the last 8 years we have neglected some of those relationships abroad and I think they're important to the stability and economic growth of our country," she says.

Leon, a master's student in public policy at the University of Denver, joined dozens of fellow students to watch the inauguration on a big-screen TV in the basement of an old sorority house.

Other students marveled at the number of people who showed up on the National Mall in Washington to see the event. One student from Japan said his country changes prime ministers so often that transfers of power aren't such a big deal anymore.

Laurie Cook works in the admissions office at D.U., and says the new president's speech left her feeling hopeful.

"I've been very fearful for many years—war and the economy and what's coming next, what's coming down the pike for all of us. And we watch people losing their jobs constantly and he's saying, "Jobs are coming are coming, have hope. Change is coming"

12:55 p.m. CT — David Schaper in Chicago:

A few hundred people braved the bitter cold in Obama's hometown of Chicago to watch their president take the oath of office. With a light snow falling and a stiff, chilly breeze blowing, Chicagoans huddled together to watch the historic inauguration on Jumbotrons set up in Pioneer Court along Michigan Avenue. Many of them teared up as they watched Obama being sworn in.

"History is keeping us warm, for sure," said Renada Hardy of suburban Park Forest. "There are no words that can describe this. I just think of my grandfather and my grandmother and how they must feel right now to see this moment — (knowing) what our people have been through and to see this African-American man become President of the United States. It's miraculous. Brilliant and miraculous."

Hardy's 14-year old daughter, Asia Billingsly, didn't mind missing school to stand out in the snow and cold and take in the momentous occasion. "When I get older, my kids are going to read in history books (about) the first black President," said Billingsly, "and I'll be able to tell them I was there and I witnessed it."

Albert Hardy, III, calls the historic moment, "phenomenal. This is an unbelievable situation that I can be here and witness this day with my daughters and my wife."

Hardy says Obama transcends race. "He's true to his word ... and he has the people behind him as well. So, we're going to make this work for the best of everyone. This has no color barrier whatsoever, this presidency, and this pulls people together, too. It's a whole new world, starting with this gentleman here starting as President."

1:35 p.m. ET — Robert Smith, in Harlem, New York City:

How do you get 5,000 Harlem schoolchildren to erupt in screams? You show Barack Obama's face on a giant video screen.

From the moment he walked out, the kids gathered at the Harlem Armory were on their feet. For the teenagers and 'tweens here, this is the first inauguration they remember — certainly, the first time they've been let out of school to watch an oath of office.

Some didn't seem to catch the finer points of presidential transitions. And about five minutes into Obama's speech, the attention of the younger kids started to drift. They threw paper at each other and used their American flags as swords.

But as one teacher told me, it's more attention than some of these kids normally give to American history. She says she'll be using Obama not only to teach about the Constitution, but as a motivational example of what can happen when you work hard in school.

12:10 p.m. CT — Cheryl Corley in Chicago:

You would have thought that they were actually on the mall, except it's s a lot warmer here. At the DuSable Museum of African American History, inaugural revelers have been drumming, reciting poetry and singing songs.

The day is providing a history lesson of sorts. The first set of folks who came in today were elderly people who have witnessed some of the hardships of being African American in an early era. They talked about the significance of Obama's inauguration.

Also here: a group of white suburban teenagers who campaigned for Obama.

While there's a great sense of pride that Obama is from Chicago, people here are also aware that there are some great problems he'll have to address as president.

12:55 p.m. ET — Robert Smith in Harlem, New York City:

The inauguration of Barack Obama is the culmination of a dream by the students of Democracy Prep, a charter school in Harlem. The 300 kids here have been studying the election all year, and they wanted to travel to D.C. for the inauguration. But the school couldn't swing it. So they decided to find the largest space in Harlem and fill it with students from 40 different schools.

As people in New York City met in churches, theaters and even City Hall to watch the inauguration on TV, the largest event was in the Harlem Armory. School buses lined up outside, bringing an expected 5,000 middle and high school kids.

Inside, the concrete walls amped up the volume of the already-loud teenagers. The event was more of a pep-rally than quiet reflection.

The kids, mostly wearing school uniforms, waved flags and danced in the aisles to Stevie Wonder in the moments before the ceremony began.

9:30 a.m. PT — Martin Kaste in Seattle:

The Inauguration Breakfast here at Central Cinema in Seattle's Central District was sold out last week. This hipster movie theater offers mimosas and strata (Italian for quiche, apparently) to an adoring crowd of Obamamaniacs to watch the Inauguration on the big screen (tuned to PBS, of course.)

It's a mainly white crowd, wearing fleece and narrow eyeglasses. Many here hiss at every sight of Dick Cheney, and issued audible sighs of exasperation when Pastor Rick Warren approached the lectern. His invocation was followed by silence.

While the mood here is celebratory, there is also an abiding concern that Obama may prove to be too centrist. One woman has already promised that, if Obama proves too accommodating to the right on issues such as gay rights, she will march against him. But for now, she says she accepts his rapprochement with the right — in the name of national unity. The question here is, how much of Obama's centrism is symbolic, and how much will be backed up by policy.

10:57 a.m. CT — Russell Lewis and Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Ala.:

A crowd of more than 5,000 is packed into Boutwell Auditorium, chanting, screaming and singing "O-BAMA, O-BAMA, O-BAMA". Some tears are flowing and smiles are plenty in this almost revival-like setting.

Virtually everyone here in this historic civil rights auditorium is African-American. People, young and old, are clutching and waving tiny American flags. They're standing in the aisles, off to the sides and are applauding as they await Barack Obama's swearing-in and speech.

10:56 a.m. CT — Howard Berkes in Coalgate, Okla.:

The early lunch crowd is now watching the TV intently at Esther's Kountry Grill.

Co-owner Barbara Elkins has tears in her eyes. She admits she didn't vote for Obama.

"I don't agree with him politically," she says. "But this is an historic day for our nation. There was a time when I wouldn't have been allowed to serve blacks in my restaurant. Now we have a black president."

Braddock acknowledges that some people here in the "Little Dixie" region of Oklahoma may not have supported Obama due to his race. But he also notes that Democrats here are very conservative, especially on abortion, gun rights and gay marriage.

Coalgate Postmaster Ken Braddock stopped in earlier for breakfast.

"I don't have any problem with his color," Braddock says. "I probably would have problems with his policies."

"Regardless of how we voted, he's still our president," says Wanda Utterback, editor of the Coalgate Record Register. "I think we all have that sense of hope. Like a new beginning, a turnaround in the country. Hopefully."

9:55 a.m. MT — Jeff Brady in Denver:

About two dozen students have crowded the basement of Condoleza Rice's former sorority house on the campus of the University of Denver. The room is silent except for occasional whispers and "ahhhs" as CNN's cameras pan the crowd on the mall in Washington, DC.

Poa Lim is from Korea and is studying English at DU, "It's very surprising for me—it's the first time to watch the inauguration ceremony."

Glenn Summers is the community outreach coordinator at the Department of Internationalization at DU. He says there are two things key to a good inauguration party—Tootsie Rolls and tissues.

10:45 a.m. CT — Cheryl Corley in Chicago:

A rowdy crowd at the DuSable Museum of African-American History erupted with cheers and applause as Barack Obama appeared on the screen of the huge TV in the museum auditorium.

With about 450 people, the hall is packed to capacity, and people are still flowing in. In one of the back rows, a group of six young white teenagers with their mothers say Barack Obama inspired them so much they worked on his campaign and wrote letters to them asking for them to help their school.

10:20 a.m. CT — Russell Lewis and Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Ala.:

Birmingham police now say 4,200 people have squeezed into Boutwell Auditorium. By far, the biggest, loudest and most sustained applause came when the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was wheeled into the auditorium.

Shuttlesworth is one of the pioneer leaders of the Civil Rights movement. He marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. Police arrested him dozens of times. The Ku Klux Klan used 16 sticks of dynamite to blow up his house while he was inside. He escaped unscathed.

Shuttlesworth was beaten up when he tried to enroll his daughters in an all-white school. Last year, the Birmingham City Council renamed the airport "Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport".

Shuttlesworth suffered a stroke a few years ago, and it's difficult for him to speak. When organizers played a tribute DVD chronicling his life and his efforts, he nodded his head. One of the speakers says, "Without Rev. Shuttlesworth, there would be no President Obama."

8:55 a.m. CT — Russell Lewis and Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Ala.:

About 2,000 people have already streamed into Birmingham's Boutwell Auditorium. As many as 6,000 people are expected here to listen to a two-hour-long program leading up to a live broadcast of the Obama inauguration. Like a lot of Birmingham, Boutwell Auditorium has a long, rich civil rights heritage. It's named after Albert Boutwell, a former Birmingham mayor who was a segregationist.

In 1938, the auditorium hosted the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. When Birmingham City Commissioner Bull Connor ordered the 3,000 black and white delegates to segregate themselves, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt pulled her chair into the center aisle in defiance.

In 1948, the auditorium hosted the States Rights Democratic Convention (better known as the Dixiecrats), where Strom Thurmond was nominated to run for president against Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey. In 1956, singer Nat King Cole was assaulted by three white assailants during a segregated performance.

Boutwell Auditorium is a few blocks from Kelly Ingram Park. It was there, in 1963, police turned fire hoses and dogs on student marchers. The images from that day captured international attention and are considered a major factor in the national push towards the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The crowd of people who are here today in the venue are well aware of this region's civil rights past, and are enthusiastic about Barack Obama's inauguration. People are smiling, chanting and singing.

8:46 a.m. CT — Cheryl Corley in Chicago:

There's a light snow falling in Chicago and people are beginning to flow into the DuSable Museum of African American History, where more than 450 people will witness the inauguration on a big screen TV in the auditorium. The group is mostly older. The perfume is heavy, and the mink coats abundant and people like Pamela Johnson, who is a bookseller, say they're happy to be alive to see an African American — as well as a Chicagoan — make history.

8:30 a.m. CT — Howard Berkes in Coalgate, Okla.:

TV coverage of the inauguration now graces the big flat-screen TV hanging in Esther's Kountry Grill. But in a state where every county voted for Republican John McCain, the breakfast crowd isn't paying much attention. Coalgate is in Coal County, which is 84 percent Democratic.

Still, 74 percent of the voters chose McCain.

The owners here at Esther's say they plan to leave the inauguration coverage on all day. "It's an historic day," agreed owner Barbara Elkins. "It's just a little bit sad it's not John McCain."

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