In 1922, a racially segregated audience watched President Warren G. Harding preside over the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, a structure that celebrates President Abraham Lincoln's dexterous preservation of the Union and principled commitment to abolishing slavery. Only the section reserved for Union Army veterans was integrated, as men of all races had fought for the ideals that Abraham Lincoln espoused. While the monument itself has become an emblem of civil rights and national unity, the 1922 dedication ceremony celebrated merely the survival of a politically intact nation and disregarded the divisions that were etched amongst its own attendees.
Forty-one years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and cast his voice out over the National Mall and across the country in his famed "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963. Though the audience in front of the memorial had changed drastically since the one that clustered at the structure's steps in 1922, many of the racial tensions that shaped it remained the same. King's speech served as an awakening and a summons, just as the presidency of Abraham Lincoln had a century before.
A memorial to Lincoln was already under discussion as the slain president lay dying, but over 50 years passed before the regal structure that now stands over the Reflecting Pool was realized. Lincoln was the second president, after George Washington, to have a national monument constructed in his honor. Henry Bacon designed the building, styled after a Grecian temple with 36 Doric columns that represent the states whose unity Lincoln fiercely defended. A 19-foot statue of the president, sculpted by Daniel French, gazes studiously into the distance, contemplating the civil war that was threatening to cripple his nation. Despite the size of the statue and the character that it embodies, standing in the presence of the marble Lincoln is neither intimidating nor overwhelming. A profound sense of peace lingers over the sculpture's lanky features and rises to fill the vast space of the memorial's interior. In the crowded daylight hours or the glowing silence of night, visitors pause to meet that peace as though they were walking into a temple.
When Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address on a bloodied field in Pennsylvania, he assured his listeners that, while his words would not be long remembered, the courageous actions carried out in battle would be. His Second Inaugural Address, presented near the conclusion of the Civil War in March 1865, urged his citizens, of all races, to remember each other's humanity. Both of these speeches are carved into the marble walls of the Lincoln Memorial. They mark a country's journey through a war and a man's journey through the presidency, but they also speak of a people, united and divided.
A bookstore on the chamber level of the building offers the inquisitive visitor further insight into the Civil War and Lincoln's presidency, and park rangers are available to answer any questions about the monument.
- Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Staffed 9:30am to 11:30pm.
- Metro Stop:
- Blueline or Orangeline to Foggybottom or Smithsonian Stations.
- Location: Independence Avenue SW and 23rd Street SW
- Phone: 202-426-6841
- Website: www.nps.gov