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American milestone: Obama inauguration is a moment of celebration, reflection

Thousands gather, bearing witness to America’s historic step toward racial equality.

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‘We are one’: The crowd swelled to an estimated 400,000 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington Sunday. People bundled up to hear top performers and speakers at a pre-inaugural concert.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor

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At noon on Tuesday, history will be made on the steps of the US Capitol. Barack Hussein Obama will take the oath of office, placing his left hand on the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used when he took the same oath in 1861.

Back then, the nation was descending into civil war over slavery. Today, the new president faces economic challenges unmatched in generations, two wars abroad, and the continuing threat of terrorism at home. The difficult business of governing at a time of crisis will begin nearly from the moment President-elect Obama utters the words “so help me God.” His inauguration speech, delivered right after the oath, will reportedly focus on two themes: responsibility and restoring public confidence.

But the special significance of Obama’s inauguration, as America’s first black president, will also be a moment for reflection and celebration. On a long weekend already commemorating the 80th birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Americans of all colors have converged on the nation’s capital in unprecedented numbers to bear witness to this latest step in the struggle toward racial equality.

Though not descended from slaves, President-elect Obama carries with him the special hopes and pride of those who are. Two and a half months after Mr. Obama’s decisive electoral victory, many African-Americans are still processing a moment they thought they’d never see.

Ronald Walters, a political scientist who worked on civil rights leader Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, says that when Mr. Jackson’s 1988 campaign folded, he concluded that the election of an African American would not happen in his lifetime.

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