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What Was the Reaction to the 1922 Dedication Ceremony?

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

A Portion of the Crowd at the 1922 Lincoln Memorial Dedication. Dressed for the Event!

(Editor's note: This is the final in the series of three blogs that tell the story of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. The three blogs originally appeared as a single article in the Winter 2022 edition of the Lincoln Group's Lincolnian newsletter.)

What was the reaction to the dedicaton of the Lincooln Memorial ? How did it play in Peoria and elsewhere? The story was reported in various ways, a mixed bag, depending on the source and its political persuasion. Some readers may have wondered if this was “a tale of two ceremonies,” rather than a single event.

Many mainstream white newspapers gave little “ink” to Moton’s speech. One Washington Post article didn’t mention his name while another in the same publication deemed the address “a triumph and unqualified assertion of American racial progress.” The reaction of The Chicago Defender, an African American publication, was to advise readers that “no memorial dedication had occurred.” A thumbnail sketch of the coverage offered by two publications – one stressing the nation’s inequities, the other national unity - is provided. Two quite different accounts.

The Chicago Whip, financed by African American businessmen and leaders, ran an article entitled “‘Distinguished Guests’ Find Themselves Roped Off in Pen, Many Leave In Disgust. This piece focused on the “Jim Crow” atmosphere of that event including how twenty-one descendants of slaves found themselves roped off in a small enclosure away from the rest of the audience. When shown into the enclosure they were accosted by a white marine acting as guard and told to "sit down, and that damn quick.” Complaints to the commander of the guard failed to result in his removal. All those seated in the “Jim-crowed” section had been given tickets marked "Section S, Platform.” After several protests they were denied seats elsewhere. They then left the enclosure in disgust, a commotion observed by Dr. Moton, who received loud applause in response to his speech. President Harding’s acceptance of the memorial on behalf of the nation emphasized the fact that “the emancipation of the slaves was merely an incident in Lincoln's prosecution of the Civil War, and that if he could have avoided the war; he never would have freed the slaves.”

The Washington Herald’s article when describing the dignitaries in attendance also acknowledged the presence of “those who fought in the war under his banner and those who fought against it; sprightly soldiers of the present day, who have just emerged from the greatest conflict known to man; members of the race he freed.” A spirit of unity was displayed by the cheering crowd:

The great soul of Abraham Lincoln yesterday looked down on a vast concourse of people and realized that "these dead have not died In vain" for he saw America united gathered at the shrine raised to him by a grateful nation and pour forth, in inspired phrases, a paean to the immortal who welded the broken destinies of homeland. White, black, yellow, red and brown people of every civilized land on earth, and representatives from every State in the Union he preserved, gathered to honor the "master martyr" in the dedication of the "lone white temple" which has been ten years in the building.

The quotes cited for Taft and Harding in the article, of course, centered on the theme of national unity. The Herald did acknowledge Dr. Moton’s participation in the ceremony. However, the description given of his talk failed to mention the most powerful part of this message, that concerning Lincoln’s “unfinished task” and the need for justice for all.

And for those who follow after… Near the end of his address, President Harding offered the following insight, one which actually envisioned the transformation to come for the Lincoln Memorial and its meaning for the country and for all peoples:

This memorial, matchless tribute that it is, is less for Abraham Lincoln than for those of us today, and for those who follow after.

As the crowds dispersed following the ceremony, the military band played “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

History marches on … and as it does, the meaning of our national symbols undergo transformations. Such has been the case of the Lincoln Memorial. That same patriotic hymn, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” played to dispersing crowds following the dedication ceremony, became a cornerstone of the iconic concert performed by Marion Anderson seventeen years later. Barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall because of her race, she relocated her concert to a larger venue, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and for a larger integrated audience. That day the Lincoln Memorial truly became a symbol for racial justice. From that time on the meaning of the Memorial has continued to evolve as a symbol and rallying point for patriotic and social justice causes. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech from its steps. Participants in recent the recent Women’s March rallied there. From this location Presidents-elect often share their thoughts with the nation on the evening before their inauguration. Today the Lincoln Memorial is one of the nation’s most sacred patriotic sites – one symbolizing not only unity but racial and social justice. There too – whether individually or collectively – we can rededicate ourselves to Lincoln’s still “unfinished work,” as we celebrate our Sixteenth President as The Great Emancipator as well as the Savior of the Nation.

Don't forget to join us on May 22nd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for our centennial celebration organized by the Lincoln Group of DC and National Park Service and co-sponsored by the Lincoln Forum. And check out all the other events we have going on this month to commemorate the Memorial's 100th anniversary. [Click on the "Events" tab to see it all]

(Photo credit: Libary of Congress)


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