Four days of celebrations and festivities surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama have begun in Washington with an open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
Tens-of-thousands of people braved freezing temperatures to attend a star-studded gala featuring performances by music legends Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Bono, addresses by famous Hollywood personalities, and video presentations of previous inaugurations and key moments in American history.
President-elect Obama emerged from behind a bullet-proof glass shield to stand on the steps of the memorial housing the larger-than-life marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. It was President Lincoln who, in 1862, issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves in the United States. On Tuesday, Mr. Obama will place his hand on Lincoln's Bible while taking the oath of office.
As he has done repeatedly in recent months, the president-elect spoke openly of the challenges facing the United States, noting that the nation is at war and its economy in crisis. But Mr. Obama suggested there is no cause for despair.
"I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure, that it will prevail - that the dream of our founders will live on in our time," said Barack Obama. "What gives me that hope is what I see when I look out across this mall. It is you - Americans of every race and region and station - who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there."
Vice president-elect Joe Biden also spoke, lauding the value of work and the dignity it brings. His wife, Jill Biden, and America's future first lady, Michele Obama, were also present.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Obama paid tribute to America's war dead with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
As many as two million Americans are expected be on hand to witness and take part in the coming inaugural events - from the swearing-in ceremony to a massive parade to inaugural balls across the city. Security is exceedingly tight and will only grow more so by Tuesday, when major bridges and roads leading to the central part of the city will be blocked to all but official vehicles.
But transportation delays and other inconveniences do not seem to be dampening the enthusiasm of visitors and residents in the nation's capital.
The historic nature of Mr. Obama's rise to the nation's highest elective office is not lost on African-American Melba Clarke of Mississippi, who experienced racial segregation in her youth.
"This is, indeed, the realization of a dream," said Melba Clarke. "And for someone who was just a young bride when the civil rights movement began, it is such an honor for me to have lived through it, and to see it materialize in the election of the first African-American president. I am very excited. My husband was a civil rights worker. He passed [died] in March, so I am here for him and for everybody who was on the frontlines during the civil rights movement in Mississippi."
Mr. Obama prepares to take office with some of the highest approval ratings on record for a president-elect, which he hopes to translate into quick action to revive the beleaguered U.S economy, chart a course toward energy independence, and other ambitious goals.