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Snapshots of a changing nation

King is a Times staff writer.

On a Saturday morning in late November, a baker’s dozen of bicyclists pedaled from downtown Los Angeles to Leimert Park on what was billed as a “victory Barackcycle.” The riders wore Obama T-shirts and hooked campaign placards to their bikes.

They rolled along Hope Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, eliciting a few cheers and many smiles from the sidewalks.

“In a tiny way, it is empowering,” said Elson Trinidad, 37, a grant analyst who organized this ride and several others during the campaign. “In whatever small way, maybe it helped. Maybe someone saw us on one of our rides and began to think about Obama. Anyway, it was fun.”

This modest event in the aftermath of a historic presidential campaign wasn’t exactly an Inauguration Day march along Pennsylvania Avenue, but it seemed as good a starting point as any for a journey that will take us there.

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Between now and Jan. 20, Times photographer Kirk McKoy and I will be joining the migration to Washington, wending our way east by car, plane, maybe train, bouncing around the country to take some snapshots, if you will, of a nation at a time of war, economic peril and political change.

Back in 1980, I was dispatched on a similar journey by the San Francisco Examiner. It was a different time.

I was 25 years old then and knew nothing about the nation, or life, for that matter. I am 53 years old now and know only that I know even less than what I thought I did back then. Such is progress.

It turned out to be a terribly interesting year. Iranians held 53 American hostages, and everywhere we went, people were tying yellow ribbons around trees. The economy was in peril, with inflation riding at 12.5%. And the nation, then as now, was in political transition, with Ronald Reagan leading a conservative revolution to the White House.

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I made a lot of friends on that trip, and was exposed to much ground-level wisdom. Over the years, though, one conversation in particular stuck with me, and in preparing for this new trip, I dug through some moldy boxes until I found it on a crinkled, faded clipping stored in the eaves of my garage.

The speaker was J.L. Chestnut Jr., a civil rights stalwart of the 1960s and Martin Luther King Jr.'s onetime lawyer. I had met him in his Selma, Ala., law office, and asked him to describe the state of race relations as he saw them. He answered with a story of generations.

“My father, my son who is about to graduate from law school, and myself were talking about the movement after church the other day,” he began. “My father and his generation are inclined to rejoice over how far we have come. He says, ‘We have come far enough.’

“But I’m saying, ‘We have come a long way, but we have so much farther to go. But we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water, to burn down the barn to kill the rats.’

“But my son, he is young, he says, ‘You have come nowhere, man. Burn down the barn. Let’s get on with what we have to do and get on with what has to be done. Let’s kill those rats.’

“And that’s about where it’s at today.”

I had been hoping to revisit Chestnut on our way to Washington, to revisit the same question three decades later. So much has changed, and there’s a new generation to address. Sadly, that conversation won’t happen. Chestnut passed away in late September at age 77, five weeks before Obama’s victory.

I hope I can find his son.

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The inauguration has been forecast to draw anywhere from 1 million to 4 million. Whatever the actual number, for those who voted for him and even those who did not, there is little doubt that the Obama swearing-in will go down as a milestone in the nation’s history, an American moment.

Before we left, Kirk and I spent some time in Los Angeles with people who were feeling drawn to the power of this moment. Some already had laid plans to be at the inauguration, or were struggling to make arrangements. Others would be content to watch it on television. All, in their way, felt connected in some way to Obama’s victory -- and that, perhaps, was the central genius of his campaign.

Indeed, “empowerment” was a common theme offered by the bicycle riders after they reached Liemert Park, which was decorated for the season with a giant artificial Christmas tree surrounded by the resident palms. The campaign’s interactive website had given rise to a network of people, drawing them into politics often for the first time and in new ways, Trinidad said.

As the cyclists regrouped for the ride back, a stocky man with a shaved head and a long goatee wandered up, promoting another form of empowerment: profit. LeCount Scott held aloft an armful of Obama tags he was selling for $5 apiece.

The street vendor explained his business model, how he printed Obama images for free off the Internet, bought red, white and blue neck cords at a discount warehouse downtown, pinched pennies in the lamination process, and so forth.

“Basically,” he said brightly, “it goes back to the American notion of making a dollar out of 15 cents.”

Scott liked the line so much he repeated it twice. He said he hoped to make it back to Washington and work the inauguration with his handmade souvenirs, as he had the Million Man and Million Family marches. But so far, he was not sure he could swing it.

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“I am really trying,” Scott said, “to get there.”

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The next stop was the home of an Obama campaign volunteer, movie producer Angela Mancuso. She was joined by two other volunteers, Beverly Rowe and Jacki Grimes.

Both Rowe and Grimes are headed for Washington. They made reservations months before the election, their confidence fed by what they’d seen working in Obama’s main Los Angeles field office -- so many volunteers that often they flowed out of the office, sitting on a sidewalk with personal cellphones to call prospective voters and donors.

Since California was regarded early on as a Democratic lock, the California volunteers were thrown into more contested regions. Rowe found herself knocking on doors in rural Texas. Mancuso was part of a phalanx that forged into Las Vegas.

“I cried,” she said, “when Nevada went blue.”

For more than an hour, these three middle-aged women talked about their campaign adventures, Obama and their hope for his administration and the country and, most of all, of his call for national service.

They saw the election as less a referendum on race than on individual merit, arguing that the nation had grown up in a way that many political commentators had missed.

As Mancuso put it: “I really believe that we believe the status quo we’ve been told is the status quo, is the status quo. And that’s a fallacy. The real truth is this country has changed -- changed right under everybody’s noses. It’s not about who your father was anymore.”

In another part of the city, a group of Crenshaw High School students who had been selected to make a field trip to the inauguration made pretty much the same point.

“My mom, I know, she cried on election night,” said 17-year-old Myia Williams, one of 11 students at a table in the school library. “Me being from a different age, I didn’t cry. I was almost like, ‘Mom, aren’t you being a little emotional there?’ I can now grasp a better understanding of the fact that this is really big for a lot of people. But it was almost insignificant to me that he was black.”

The girl next to Williams said that her grandmother had scolded her when she expressed similar views, and her mother has reminded her “almost constantly” since the election that if Barack Obama could study hard and become president, her future could be no less bright if she did the same.

“He worked hard and he made it,” said Tiffanie Price, 16, repeating the lesson. “Now maybe I can do it. I’m not saying he has opened the door. The door has always been there. But he showed us we could get through it.”

With that, the students began to gather up their backpacks and prepare to head home for the day. Their trip will cost each student $2,568, and in this economy donations aren’t falling from trees like the late autumn leaves.

It will be a long haul, but they are hopeful they will make it, and we asked them to save us a spot on the parade route, at the journey’s end.

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peter.king@latimes.com


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