By David J. Kent
Friday, May 12, 2023
A year has passed since the Lincoln Group of DC sponsored the Lincoln Memorial Centennial program in May 2022. I find myself reminiscing about the preparations and outcomes of the event.
The Centennial program itself was a year in the making. In June 2021, the LGDC Board agreed that we should organize an event in conjunction with the National Park Service (NPS) for this auspicious occasion. Reaching out to NPS was more difficult than initially imagined, as the change in administrations left many executive positions unfilled. Through Ed Epstein’s outreach via Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin’s office, I was able to connect with first one, then another NPS ranger. Eventually, Jaime Boyle and I became the key coordinators of the program.
The Board wanted to capture the original majesty and meaning of the Memorial; but also the evolution of the Memorial from simply reunification of North and South to its greater meaning as a symbol of civil rights. We recognized that the 1922 dedication was a segregated affair during the era of Jim Crow and that the sole African American speaker, Dr. Robert Russa Moton, had his speech censored. We wanted to address that issue and bring voice to Moton and to that evolution.
President Harding and Chief Justice Taft were speakers at the original dedication. Current security logistics prohibited even consideration of the current holders of those offices; so we decided to bring in speakers who could address the original, evolving, and future roles of the Memorial. I reached out to Harold Holzer - the reigning expert on both Lincoln and Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the iconic seated Lincoln in the Memorial - to present the original development. Harold brought along co-sponsorship of the Lincoln Forum. I also reached out to Howard University’s Dr. Edna Greene Medford to discuss the evolution of the Memorial into a symbol of the civil rights struggle. For the future we decided to go back to the past. Tuskegee Institute’s Dr. Robert R. Moton had spoken at the original dedication; so for our centennial rededication we called on the current president of Tuskegee University, Dr. Charlotte P. Morris. John O’Brien volunteered to reach out to her and she wholeheartedly accepted the role of our keynote speaker.
But we also wanted some entertainment. Through Harold Holzer we were able to secure the talents of actor Stephen Lang (Avatar, Gettysburg) to read excerpts of the Edward Markham poem premiered at the 1922 dedication, as well as from the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural that are etched in the interior walls of the Memorial. To reflect the importance of Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert on the Memorial’s steps, Jon Willen was able to reach out to Felicia Curry, the extraordinary singer and actress who had just starred in the Ford’s Theatre’s play My Lord, What a Night, about Anderson’s relationship with Albert Einstein. Curry would sing the National Anthem, America, and a spiritual sung by Anderson.
About this time, we realized that we were missing some important principals. Reaching out to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, I enlisted the past commander, Jeffry Burden, to give an overview of their vital role in protecting the Memorial. He also led the pledge of allegiance. In addition, John worked with African American Civil War Museum director Dr. Frank Smith to present the critical role African American’s played, both in the Civil War and the Civil Rights era. In keeping with the original dedication, the current pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Rev. Dr. Sarah Johnson, gave the opening invocation.
Through the detective work and funding of an anonymous LGDC member, we were able to track down descendants of Robert R. Moton, four of whom we flew into Washington, DC to join us during the ceremony.
Meanwhile, Jaime and I collaborated on the NPS portion of the program, including getting the new NPS Director Charles Sams III (confirmed only in December 2021) to lead off the speeches. Jaime also arranged for the seating, audio, and “The President’s Own” Marine Band Quintet. I was also able to enlist the expertise of photographers Bruce Guthrie and Henry Ballone to get a visual record of the event. Ed Epstein used his contacts to ensure media coverage, both live and taped. C-SPAN covered us and created a memorable lasting record of the entire program. The coverage was phenomenal.
Of course, we also had to pay for all this. I found it immensely gratifying to see the level of financial support our members offered to carry off this ambitious program. My personal thanks go to all the members who contributed in both big and small amounts to the success of the Centennial. I extend those thanks to all the LGDC Board members and others who did so much legwork to make this program happen.
By all metrics, the Lincoln Memorial Centennial event was a wonderful success. We managed to pay homage to the original dedication while also correcting some of the deficiencies of that day. We also captured the continuing evolution and growth of the Memorial’s meaning to all Americans. I believe we honored Abraham Lincoln with our program and demonstrated how the Memorial will continue to be a focal point for both memory and change.
It seemed altogether fitting and proper that at the end of the formal ceremonies, we invited all of those present – speakers, organizers, park rangers, audience members, and random visitors – to join us on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a grand photo, which can be seen on our website.
As I reminisce about the Memorial Centennial event of a year ago, I am also turning my sights forward. In three short years – 2026 – the United States will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of our country in the form of the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln routinely referred to the Declaration as the document defining our national meaning. The Constitution provides the legal framework for implementing our nation of laws; but in Lincoln’s mind, the Declaration provides the moral compass in which “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” While no doubt there will be national celebrations of this anniversary, I also believe that the Lincoln Group of DC is positioned to highlight Lincoln’s commitment to the Declaration and the constant striving toward a more perfect Union. It is not too early to start thinking about how to do that, so please reach out with ideas.
[Photo Credit: Bruce Guthrie]