Lincoln Memorial

1922.

Architect, Henry Bacon       Sculptor, Daniel Chester French

Occupying a central location on axis with the Capital and Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial is dedicated to the memory of our 16th president Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. It may be best known today as the place where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington of 1963. King now has his own memorial not far away, so this monument has in a sense helped to spawn another. Yet the Lincoln Memorial is also a monument suffused in irony, just insofar as it has been part of a people’s struggle for equality.

The Lincoln Memorial has a long history as a site for continuing Lincoln’s legacy, dating from the concert on Easter Sunday 1939 by the legendary contralto singer Marian Anderson, which was given to a vast crowd of over 75,000, as well as a radio audience of millions.  Anderson had been turned away from a proposed date at nearby Constitution Hall owned by the lily-white Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).  The hall’s owners told Anderson’s manager that no space was available on that date.  What they really meant was “We don’t allow blacks in our building and we were unable to imagine that a famous and accomplished opera singer who we initially agreed to could be African-American, so we’re weaseling out.” At the behest of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who also immediately cancelled her DAR membership, the Lincoln Memorial was made available where Anderson sung to a far greater crowd and created a historic event.

Ever since that moment, the Lincoln Memorial has served as a rallying place. It is a central tourist stop for black viewers.  It also draws people like Donna Murphy, who sees it as a logical place to discuss white privilege and racial inequality in America.  [You can hear her words at the bottom of this page]

In historical perspective, this is absolutely remarkable. At the monument’s inauguration in 1922, America was so racially segregated that the white audience for the inauguration sat in the central aisle directly in front while African-Americans were restricted to a distant section across the road, a section not even marked in the inauguration’s official program. Twenty-one African-American guests left in protest. Even more striking, and still evident today, the monument itself bears almost no mention of slavery, except as an portion of the Second Inaugural Address inscribed within the building, and placed where it is rarely viewed.  Similarly, its painted allegorical imagery carefully avoids any representation of the actuality of Lincoln’s time. The inscription directly behind the head of Daniel Chester French’s dazzling, colossal sculptural rendering of Lincoln states only that he “saved the Union.” This is the main thing the casual visitor can read. Its author, the art critic Royal Cortissoz, justified it stating “By saying nothing about slavery you avoid the rubbing of old sores.”  Even more than half a century after the Civil War, not having their slaves apparently still bothered people influential enough to shape the design of a national monument and the image of a national hero.

But that was then.   The Lincoln Memorial’s importance today is not that mandated by its governmental creators, who eventually approved a chilly, remote space, an excruciatingly detailed neo-classical temple (though it had first been intended as far more open to the outside). But the 6.2 million visitors who make this the most-visited monument in Washington do not abide by the silence and unquestioning reverence that would seem to be demanded.  Instead, their voices and visions continually remake the Lincoln memorial as a living monument which speaks to our continuing and diverse identities and challenges as Americans.