This month, as we celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, let’s turn the spotlight on the Lincoln Memorial, which is turning 100 this year. Our good friends at the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia have dug up the story of the original 1922 dedication program, and what a story that is! The lessons for today are startling.
So, with permission from the Lincoln Group of D.C., we reprint this article, written by Wendy Swanson.
The iconic Lincoln Memorial turns 100 years old this year, and the Lincoln Group of D.C. is hard at work, planning a major centennial commemoration. The Lincoln Group is partnering with the National Park Service (NPS) to present a highly visible and memorable event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The event will take place on the morning of Sunday, May 22, 2022.
As a starting point for planning this year’s centennial commemoration, we looked back in time to study the original ceremony, and use that event as a blueprint of sorts for designing a program for today. We soon saw certain aspects of Lincoln’s legacy—so important in recent times—were not prominent themes (if included at all) in the original festivities.
The focus of the Memorial was Lincoln’s saving the Union. Mention of the Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment were intentionally left out of the design because of ongoing segregation. Dr. Robert Moton, the African American director of Tuskegee Institute, was invited to speak at the dedication, but his remarks, critical of segregation and voter suppression laws, were censored. Additionally, Moton was required to stand off-stage before and after his speech, separated from the other speakers—including Chief Justice William Taft, President Warren Harding, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge.
The Memorial rose from the still swampy area west of the Washington Monument. Washington politics complicated the process of proposing, approving, designing, and building the marble structure most of us have come to revere. A commission, tasked with its design, bumped up against the powerful speaker of the house, while wrangling among the artists, design disagreements, and structural logistics led to inflated costs. Interruptions during “the war to end all wars,” i.e., World War I, added to the woes, protracting the Memorial’s construction for nine years.
What was it like to attend that ceremony? Who was there? What did they say and what didn’t they say? Herein, we offer a portrait of the event.
The official program for the original dedication had a straightforward agenda:
If we were transported back in time to that day in 1922, those who know their history would not necessarily be surprised, but might still find the segregated nature of the event jarring. This, after all, was the era of Jim Crow. (Remember, themes such as emancipation and voting rights were left out of the design of the memorial because of the culture of the day, i.e., segregation.) African Americans, who arrived early to honor Father Abraham, and with hopes of gaining a prime viewing spot near the front of the crowd, were not only disappointed, but rudely led to a “colored section” far from the main activity. Meanwhile, a group of Confederate veterans, dressed in their gray uniforms, received seats of honor alongside their counterparts in blue, the Union veterans. The themes of reunion and saving the union were clearly visible.
The Speakers: Two of the main speakers at the event, William Howard Taft and the U.S. President (in 1922, that official was Warren G. Harding) were predicable; we would consider them “givens” for this particular type of event. After all, Taft, the president who signed the bill to create the Lincoln Memorial, also served as the chairman of the Lincoln Memorial Commission. He also was the nation’s Chief Justice. He had the honor at the ceremony of presenting the Memorial to Harding, the U.S. President, as a gift to the nation. Harding, in turn, was there to accept this offering on behalf of the county.
The dedication’s third major speaker was Dr. Robert R. Moton, selected to give the keynote address, and the only African American with a primary role in the program. Moton had become president of Tuskegee Institute following the death of its founder and first president, Dr. Booker T. Washington. A civil rights activist, he had written President Harding a letter offering suggestions on improving race relations and was a presidential advisor on this subject. Moton, a nationally well-known African American leader, was conservative in nature, and the Memorial Commission’s “careful” choice to “represent his race” by giving the keynote address. However, he was not given equal treatment.
The Speeches: Moton was not given free rein to speak on all the issues he considered pertinent. Prior to the dedication, he was asked to submit his speech for review. After doing so, he received the following correspondence from Chief Justice Taft, acting in his capacity as chairman of the Lincoln Memorial Commission. That telegram, dated May 23, 1922, insisted on revisions to the proposed draft:
Organizers of the event censored significant content of the proposed speech as too radical, and demanded a milder version. Sections of the address considered to be “problematic”—and, which were deleted—referenced the failure of the federal government to protect the rights of African Americans. In one deleted section, Moton referred to Lincoln’s mention in the Gettysburg Address of “great unfinished work” and the need to ensure that “government of the people, for the people and by the people should not perish from the earth.” After quoting Lincoln, Moton added:
This language on race relations and social justice did not appear in Moton’s keynote address given on May 30, 1922. In fact, a significant portion of the final section of his original speech was revised.
Some may wonder why Moton, working under such restrictions, proceeded with presenting his keynote address. He undoubtedly considered when, and if, he would again have the opportunity to address such a large assemblage (crowd estimates were at 50,000 or more, with additional listeners via radio broadcasts). Although he made cuts, as required, Moton made certain points clear. He talked of reconciliation, but he also called on the nation to complete its “unfinished work.” He observed that from the day of Lincoln’s tragic death, “the noblest minds and hearts, both North and South, were bent to the healing of the breach and the spiritual restoration of the Union.” He expressed his desire that the memorial’s dedication would mark the nation’s renewed commitment “to fulfill to the last letter the task imposed on it by the martyred dead—that it highly resolve that the humblest of citizen of whatever color or creed, shall enjoy that equal opportunity and unhampered freedom for which the immortal Lincoln gave ‘the last full measure of devotion.’” Moton closed by quoting Lincoln’s second inaugural address, adding his own belief:
The audience stood in applause as the band played “America.”
Much has been written about Moton’s censored speech. For those who wish to further explore the revisions made to his original speech, the Library of Congress provides a side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the address. The speech not delivered is also contained in The Lincoln Anthology, edited by Harold Holzer, published by Library Classics of the United States, New York, 2009.
The speeches of Taft and Harding repeated the original focus of the memorial as a symbol of the unification of the previously divided nation. To Taft, the monument signified “the restoration of brotherly love of the two sections” previously divided, e.g., North and South. Thus, he found the site selected for the memorial, on the Potomac, “the boundary between those two sections, peculiarly appropriate.” In fact, according to the Chief Justice, Lincoln was “as dear to the hearts of the South as to those of the North.” Harding offered remarks that dovetailed those of his predecessor—“how it would soften [Lincoln’s] anguish to know the South long since came to realize that vain assassin robbed it of its most sincere and potent friend.”
Harding started his remarks by accepting, on behalf of the government, the monument to the savior of the republic. Again, the focus was unification with no reference to what we, today, consider a major part of Lincoln’s legacy as the Great Emancipator. Harding essentially considered emancipation as a “means to the end”:
Robert Todd Lincoln (Photo credit: Library of Congress) An important attendee at the dedication, though he was not a speaker, was Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving son of the martyred president. He was a special guest at the ceremony, one who received a standing ovation upon taking his seat. During the construction of the memorial, he often had his driver go by the site to observe the progress being made on this tribute to his father. He once even received permission to visit the site during ongoing construction. The dedication was his last public appearance at age 79.
The Reaction: 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 the 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 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 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 envisioned the transformation to come for the Lincoln Memorial and its meaning for the country and 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 transform. 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 women’s marches have 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.
Other sources for this article: The National Park Service sites offer background on the Memorial, its history, and the dedication, including the dedication day’s speakers and newspaper coverage. Boundary Stones, WETA’s local history website article “The Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial” (https://boundarystones.weta.org/2018/04/18/dedication-lincoln-memorial). “Lincoln Memorial: A Temple of Tolerance,” Harold Holzer; at HistoryNet.