While Martin Luther King Jr. was certainly there in spirit at the thousands of parties all over the world being held on inauguration night, Tuesday, January 20, he might have lingered a little longer over the jubilant gathering of 340 guests at the inaugural ball at the Trenton Marriott. For there at the party’s epicenter, was a close, personal friend of King’s, a woman whose crusades for civil rights have created a legacy of her own and earned her the rightful moniker of icon — in Trenton and throughout the United States.
Confined to a wheelchair, but looking ever the part of leading lady, Edith Savage Jennings, her voice hoarse, she said, from speaking to so many reporters, addressed the sea of dinner guests. You could have heard a pin drop. You might have thought she would recap her own journey towards the day she, a lifelong member of the NAACP, would see an African-American in the Oval Office, that she might start in 1963. That was the year that she was among the six women asked by President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy to go to Mississippi on a secret mission to pinpoint and evaluate critical areas of unrest in school desegregation. Or her lobbying efforts to save the federal food stamp program or her fundraising efforts to help rebuild Black churches that were victims of arson in the 1990s. Or her successful efforts to bring great African-American luminaries to speak in Trenton, including Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, his wife, Coretta Scott King, and all of their children.
But all Savage Jennings really wanted to speak about was the 700 Trenton area schoolchildren she had been with at the War Memorial that morning to watch the inauguration live on a big screen. “They were so well behaved,” she beamed, “so rapt with attention.” Watching those children, she said, was her most important memory of this most memorable day.
As big screens beamed out the inaugural balls in Washington, James Jennings rocked the house on the keyboard, followed by the Red Blackstone Band, who had the dance floor packed in between dinner courses. How much fun is it to watch grown men and women line dance, yes, line dance, like teens at a wedding, with grins on their faces as wide as the Mississippi? In retrospect what struck me most about this party, in fact, was that people were smiling, really smiling. They were genuinely happy. You go to a lot of galas, and people are so polite, smiling with effort as they listen to some stiff in a tuxedo wax poetic about his vintage Aston Martin or poke gingerly at their dinner, wondering if those braised veal medallions are going to put the three-digit ticket price to shame. Not at the Trenton Marriott on inauguration night. It was all
isn’t-Michelle’s-dress-fabulous and don’t-they-look-charming-on-the-dance-floor?
In her champagne toast, Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter Theater, said she was in London on Election Day, and had the privilege of lunching with Nobel Laureate and playwright Harold Pinter the next day. “He asked me if I were happy. ‘Ecstatic,’ I said. ‘Should we order champagne?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. And we did. Harold Pinter is famous for being a critic of the United States’ policies both domestic and foreign. Together, we raised our glasses to celebrate Barack Obama’s election. He said, ‘I haven’t been able to say this since 1945: God Bless America.’”