sweet land of liberty
The dedication ceremony for the Lincoln Memorial was segregated.
It was 1922, and Dr. Robert R. Moton, then president of the Tuskegee Institute, was an invited speaker.
He was only invited to speak to blacks in attendance at the ceremony, all of whom were seated on the opposite side of a road from the main platform in front of the memorial.
In 1939, Marian Anderson, a woman from Philadelphia with a beautiful contralto voice, was denied the privilege of singing at the Constitution Hall by the good Daughters of the American Revolution. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and suggested that Anderson perform her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She did, on Easter Sunday.
The first song she sang was "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
Martin Luther King, Jr. would invoke Anderson's song less than thirty years later in his "I Have a Dream" speech, calling for "the day when all God's children will be able to sing [it] with new meaning."
The Obama transition team is determined to present him as the Lincoln to George W. Bush's Buchannan, and with regards to the media presence, they've succeeded. Comparisons of the two men from Illinois are everywhere right now.
Sunday afternoon I skipped out on a beautiful springtime (in January) day to watch the opening event of the Obama inaugural festivities, a concert called We Are One that was held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I mainly watched because my friend, the Lobbyist for the Dark Side (who is actually no longer a lobbyist, but that's another topic), is a member of a chorus that sang in the program.
They had thought earlier this week that they would be backing James Taylor, but it turned out that the chorus was assigned to sing with Josh Groban and Heather Headley. They sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee," in tribute to Marian Anderson.
The Lobbyist is a member of the Gay Mens' Chorus of Washington.
Someone with a sense of history and humor planned that one, no doubt.
It could not have been more appropriate. Because that is, in so many ways, the story of this country. It's a story of figuring out that a country built on liberty and equality doesn't get to say that some people are better than others. We don't get to exclude performers from our concert halls because of the color of their skin. We don't separate people who are different from one another just so we can all be comfortable and pretend that the others aren't there. We don't have to have arrived on the first boats from England to get to be elected president. And even if - especially if - our religion teaches that someone else's orientation or lifestyle is wrong, we still don't get to exclude those people from the rights and privileges the rest of us enjoy. The blessings of liberty are secured for all of us.
Lincoln will be invoked many, many more times in the next few days as the inauguration progresses, probably inappropriately from time to time. Lincoln was far from the perfect saint history has made him out to be. We forget, for example, that the Emancipation Proclamation was largely about sticking it to the south. It didn't even free the slaves in Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, or areas of the Confederacy that were under Union control at the time. If you were a slave in New Orleans, you remained a slave until the war ended and the 13th Amendment passed.
Like our country, it took Lincoln a long time to get there. He was an ordinary man and a politician, not a saint. You can see him puzzle it out, wondering in the Second Inaugural if the terrible war is God's punishment for two sides that pray to the same God for our complicity about slavery. He knows slavery is evil, but the demands of politics are like shackles on the wrists of those who want to do good.
But he did get there. And we'll get there, step by step by step. Sometimes it's painful; sometimes the heroes, like the one we honor today, die. But this country which is, as Lincoln said, "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," grows a little more each time.
Let freedom ring.