by Karin Zeitvogel and Alex OgleWed Jan 21, 12:22 am ET
WASHINGTON, (AFP) – With tears and cheers and hope for a better future, more than two million people filled the streets of Washington in a joyous celebration of the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States.
"This is a realization of a dream, ever since I was part of the civil rights movement. Obama is the person we need at this time, at this point in history," said 74-year-old John Saunders, who brushed off two hip replacements and the biting cold to attend the inauguration.
"You could feel the energy in the crowd, it was in the air. It's bigger than anything I've ever been a part of," said Jovan Mayfield, 18, who traveled from New York to join a human tide flooding the National Mall and the parade route to the White House.
The rejoicing was accompanied by a sense of relief that the tumultuous and divisive eight years of the George W. Bush presidency were finally over.
"People are ready for change," Mayfield told AFP. "People are ready for this, they're ready for this country to be greater than it's ever been."
Just before Obama took the oath of office, the strains of Aretha Franklin singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" reverberated around the steps of the white Capitol building, which glistened in the bright winter sunshine.
The crowd hushed and tears streamed down many faces as the "Queen of Soul's" voice swelled to wrap them in an emotional blanket of music.
"I was in awe. You could see, we were all chanting an African man's name, in the capital, in a country where Africans were brought over as slaves," said Rosalind Campbell, 35, from Brooklyn.
"We couldn't stop crying. We don't cry much in our family, apart from when things get tough, and we don't have enough money ... but I couldn't stop crying."
An estimated 350,000 people lined the parade route from the Capitol to the White House and those who were lucky enough to see Obama and first lady Michelle leave their armored limousine and walk part of the route erupted in wild cheers.
After pausing briefly inside the White House, Obama and his family returned to watch the parade from a massive glassed-in reviewing stand.
Michelle Obama was overheard telling a well-wisher: "We're here! We're home!"
The day began early for the crowds who were aching with cold despite being bundled up in several layers, with the first packed subway trains rolling toward Washington at 4:00 am.
Bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, they rode in from the outer suburbs in Maryland and Virginia and streamed by foot down the city's wide avenues, a human flood cheerfully but single-mindedly moving in one direction.
"It's a milestone in race relations in the US," said Fred Phillips, 62.
"We're still not completely there but we can't go back. The hopes from my ancestors have been realized, the efforts have been rewarded and the prayers have been answered."
Despite the day's long wait, the packed crowds and the worst economic problems facing the nation since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the air crackled with hope and optimism.
"I think Obama and his administration are going to electrify, bolster and solidify all the dreams and aspirations in America," said Patrick Kearns, 47, fromCharleston, West Virginia.
"We need to be better neighbors in the world."
Even those who did not get ringside seats and had to watch from hundreds of meters away on one of the huge video screens set up along the lawns stretching between the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial were overjoyed just to be there.
"We woke up at 3:00 but it's worth it. I think it's history on its way. We just want to be there celebrating," said Mary Lloyd.
The streets resembled a burgeoning tent city with food stalls springing up in the middle of the road and the smell of cooking meat on grills.
Several hundred street vendors sold a huge array of Obamabilia, including buttons, shirts, winter hats, posters and calendars, license plate holders, costume jewelry and watches.
Military trucks blocked off civilian streets, as police and reservists manned concrete barriers on every corner. Entire highways were empty and then turning a corner, the crowds suddenly began.
The tight security net proved confusing for many, and some waited hours to secure a spot along the route of the parade that accompanied Obama and his family to the White House.
"We were in the holding pen for a good couple of hours. Mashed in like sardines," said Pamela Jones, 58, from White Plains, New York. "When we finally got through it really was, free at last, free at last."