Since the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, the larger-than-life-size, seated statue of the “Great Emancipator” has witnessed many milestones in the fight for civil rights. The dedication day was, itself, a demonstration of racism in American society. African American members of the audience were segregated in an area far from the podium, and the one black speaker that day―Dr. Robert Russo Moton, president of Tuskegee Institute―was pressured into keeping his speech uncontroversial.
Seventeen years later, it was a different scene when, on Easter Sunday in 1939, 75,000 people came to hear Marian Anderson sing. Howard University had invited Anderson to DC to perform, and, in seeking a venue large enough to accommodate the internationally renowned singer, requested that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) lift its no-black-performers policy at the 4,000-seat Constitution Hall for the event. DAR refused the request. When the use of the 2,000-seat auditorium at Central High School was also denied, the newly formed Marian Anderson Citizens Committee, chaired by Charles Hamilton Houston, picketed the school board. The NAACP’s Walter White then worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (who withdrew her membership from DAR in protest) and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes to arrange for an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
In 1957, civil rights leaders including A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Roy Wilkins organized a “Prayer Pilgrimage” here to bring attention, on the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, to the lack of progress in school desegregation. The mass demonstration, which drew more than 25,000 participants, also called for new civil rights laws.
Six years later, the same civil rights activists organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to urge Congress to pass the stalled civil rights bill. On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people rallied here and heard Dr. King deliver his now-iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Less than a year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Dr. King was planning a Poor People’s Campaign when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The plan went forward anyway, and in May organizers built 3,000 wooden A-frame structures on the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The encampment, “Resurrection City” survived for 42 days until police tear-gassed and arrested around 100 remaining residents after the group’s permit expired on June 23. Four days earlier, some 75,000 Chicanos, American Indians and others had gathered here for Solidarity Day, organized by the Washington Urban League’s Sterling Tucker.
It is no accident that President-elect Barack Obama chose the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a celebratory “We Are One” concert on January 18, 2009, the day before his first inauguration. Hundreds of artists performed for the Obamas and about 400,000 other people on that exceptionally cold day, including Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, 89-year-old Pete Singer, and Bruce Springsteen.