Poor Abe Lincoln. As we set out for the weekend, we knew we would be spending his 213th birthday enjoying mild weather at Joe Pool Lake. We also knew there would be very few references to America’s 16th president, other than to use “the party of Lincoln” as a taunt against Trumpublicans. For Jon, who grew up in the “Land of Lincoln,” February 12 has always held special meaning. After all, it was a school holiday. And in Springfield, the state capital, there were always commemorations at the place where Lincoln made his home and began his political career.
This year, as we relaxed lakeside, the Department of Defense conducted a Presidential Armed Forces Full Honor wreath-laying ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial. It was intended to be the first of a number of commemorative activities reflecting on 100 years of honoring Lincoln’s legacy at the iconic historical marker, which was dedicated on May 30, 1922. Modeled after a Greek temple, it was constructed with Colorado Yule marble and Indiana limestone surrounding an immense Olympian-like sculpture of a tired Abraham Lincoln in a Roman-style chair.
At its dedication, nearly 50,000 people gathered to hear speeches from President Warren G. Harding, Chief Justice (and former president) William Howard Taft, and other dignitaries, including Robert Russa Moton, the president of Tuskegee University.
In his original speech, Moton warned “that this memorial which we erect in token of our veneration is but a hollow mockery, a symbol of hypocrisy, unless we together can make it real in our national life, in every state, and in every section, for the things which he died,” which challenged the nation to live up to Lincoln’s ideals lest the monument become a hollow vessel devoid of transcendent meaning. But President Taft would not tolerate such rhetoric, especially in what was still widely considered a Southern city. He had Moton’s speech revised, eliminating the condemnations of racism and its resulting poverty and hopelessness. Instead, Moton would praise Lincoln as a healer and unifier, and the South for its role in sectional healing.
It’s unfortunate that Moton had to acquiesce to Taft’s demands, but for African-Americans, the 1920s were difficult at best. The year before the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated, mobs of white residents attacked Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lynchings were still occurring throughout the region, and the majority of African-Americans were relegated to sharecropping and menial jobs while also being disfranchised from the political system. The very audience at the dedication of a memorial to the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation was segregated, with African-Americans shunted off to one side.
Yet Moton did not give in to this humiliation. Instead, he said Black men and women were “proud of their American citizenship,” and he quoted from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, “Let us, therefore, with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right: as God gives us to see the right” — and added “let us strive on to finish the work which he so nobly began, to make America the symbol for equal justice and equal opportunity.”
We’ve wrestled with Lincoln’s legacy throughout our lives. History has not looked kindly on his every action. But it’s easy to forget that he governed during a period of time in which the very survival of the union was in peril. His memorial invites us to reflect on the world he inhabited, as well as the decisions he made at tumultuous times. It’s important to remember that Lincoln was imperfect — a man of great heartache, indecision, and second-guessing. Still, he transcended his shortcomings and envisioned a nation that could self-correct and expand liberty and justice for all.