A Shining Moment – For Lincoln, His Memorial and Our Lincoln Group of DC
By Wendy Swanson
Sunday, May 21, 2023
The Lincoln Memorial Centennial Program - Sunday, May 22, 2022
After all those months of meetings, planning and hard work, the event seemed over in a flash. Time flies; it is hard to believe that a year has passed since the Lincoln Memorial Centennial commemoration took place. Let us pause and take a moment to remember that sunny Sunday morning and an event that will long be remembered in Lincoln Group history.
The morning’s program had been carefully designed. The dedication of the Memorial in 1922 – the event we were commemorating – had celebrated Lincoln as a unifier of the nation but never mentioned the word emancipation. That interpretation was typical of that time - the dedication took place during the Jim Crow era.
The theme of the 2022 offering – “Building on Lincoln’s Vision of Unity and Equality” – clearly proclaimed that this event would be different. In 2022 Lincoln would be celebrated both as a unifier and as an emancipator. It was fitting and proper to do so – after all, over the years Lincoln’s Memorial has become not only a tribute to the man himself but also a symbol of social justice and equality for all.
The program executed that theme beautifully – a mixture of history, music, and inspiration but also of “calls to action.” Moreover, unlike in 1922, those gathered that morning – both the speakers and the attendees – reflected the face and diversity of America.
Here are a few highlights from the program:
The first Native American director of the National Park Service, “Chuck” Sams welcomed the crowd by admitting that the memorial had a “special place in his heart.” Noting that the memorial had become a focal point in the struggle for equality, he added that here he had been sworn in as director on the very spot where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had given his “I Have a Dream Speech” and that “now he was a part of that dream realized.”
Harold Holzer, expert on all things Lincoln, related the history of the Memorial, emphasizing the gift sculptor Danial Chester French had given the nation. That “artistic genius” had enhanced the visual impact of the monument.
Edna Greene Medford described the evolution of the memorial to “a symbol of hope for all.” She admitted that the challenges the nation faces today are “daunting” – but so were those faced by Lincoln. She sees the memorial as “giving hope that we can face today’s challenges with the same courage demonstrated by Lincoln.”
Dr. Charlotte P. Morris, president of Tuskegee University and our keynote speaker, had the role of discussing Lincoln’s vision and his “unfinished business. A predecessor at Tuskegee - Robert Russa Moton, the keynote speaker at the 1922 dedication - had his draft speech censored to omit discussion of that subject. Morris urged that we heed Lincoln’s charge “to afford all a fair chance in the race of life.”
There are other images of the day that also come to mind as well:
The attendance of “special guests” at the ceremony, specifically, four descendants of Dr. Moton - learning more about their family’s legacy.
Dr. Frank Smith, Director of the African American Civil War Museum, speaking of the establishment of the United States Colored Troops and of his own participation in more recent times in the struggle for equality.
Singer-actress Felicia Curry providing a highlight of the morning – a stirring rendition of our national anthem - a showstopper! The background music of tourist chatter came to a halt as many visitors stood at attention - hand over heart - during the anthem. Curry too sang from Marian Anderson’s songbook during the program, bringing to mind one of the major events in the transformation of the Lincoln Memorial to its symbolic status in the civil rights movement. Anderson’s 1933 Easter concert was an event open to all.
Finally, the words of Lincoln himself soared over the monument in actor Stephen Lang's passionate recitation of the words from the Gettysburg Address and the closing sections of the Second Inaugural Address – words carved on the memorial’s wall.
Lincoln Group President David J. Kent – who proved himself to be a top-notch emcee – wrapped up the proceedings with yet another “call to action,” again repeating words from Lincoln himself:
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. With our actions, we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.
The event emphasized how much can be accomplished when one – whether an individual or an organization – decides on a course of action and follows through to its completion. The Lincoln Group accepted the challenge to work with the Park Service to present this event. Assistance and support came from the Lincoln community – both from individuals and organizations, including the Lincoln Forum. And, remember, the program at the Lincoln Memorial was just one of several events held that week.
Just goes to show what can be achieved with determination and cooperation. Definitely, this was an event to be remembered and to serve as a model for future celebrations – all the while reminding us of the work that still remains to be done.
(Photo Credit: Bruce Guthrie)