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Voice of Freedom | Article

Who Owns a Monument?

How the Lincoln Memorial became a symbol for civil rights

The Lincoln Memorial as seen from the National Mall at night. April 25, 2006. CrashingWaves, Flickr.

Long before Marian Anderson’s dramatic recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, African Americans had worked and struggled to lay claim to Lincoln’s memory in public space. From 1876 to 1922, the major monument in the nation’s capital to the martyr president was not the temple on the mall but a statue in Lincoln Park one mile due east of the Capitol, paid for entirely by the donations of formerly enslaved Americans, mostly Black soldiers in the Union Army who generously gave their meager earnings to the project. This Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln stood directly on axis with a massive statue of George Washington, seated on a throne, overlooking the east front of the Capitol. For decades these two memorials, one mile apart, constituted the single most important configuration of monuments in Washington, before the National Mall would assume that honor in the twentieth century. Even after the mall’s construction, however, it took Anderson’s concert to center Black agency in how the nation remembers Lincoln. Her 1939 recital would transform public understanding of the Lincoln Memorial and inspire future Civil Rights leaders and other activists to stage protests there.

In 1876, however, the Freedmen’s Memorial was the first public monument in the U.S. financed by African Americans (and remained the sole example until the 1920s). Its dedication before a huge interracial crowd that included President Grant, his Cabinet, the Supreme Court and many members of Congress, was a singular moment of validation for a people who had endured the “social death” of slavery. As Frederick Douglass said at the dedication ceremony, anticipating the backlash against Black freedom that lay ahead, “when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.”

The Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park. Public Domain

Yet despite the strategic importance of the monument’s visibility, Douglass knew it was deeply problematic. He and the Black donors whose generosity had made it possible had no voice in the monument’s design, which was decided by a small group of elite white philanthropists who controlled the funds. When the monument was unveiled, Lincoln stood like a saint blessing a lowly slave, a crouching, semi-nude Black man, forever powerless and subservient at Lincoln’s feet. Even though the Black soldiers in the audience knew better than anyone that the destruction of slavery had depended on the combined efforts of many—not least the hundreds of thousands of Black civilians and soldiers who escaped, bled and died for the cause of freedom—the monument’s design reverted to the old familiar formula of the white savior. While Douglass despised this imagery, the monument for decades was the focus of annual emancipation celebrations in the capital, and by 1900 it had become known as the Emancipation Monument. 

The new temple to Lincoln on the mall, which opened in 1922, further challenged Black claims on Lincoln’s public memory. As problematic as the older monument’s imagery was, it had centered the story of emancipation in the capital’s memorial landscape and in the nation’s image of Lincoln. In a single stroke the new Lincoln Memorial marginalized the Freedmen’s Memorial and demoted its message from mainstream to minority memory. 

The majestic marble temple designed by Henry Bacon completed a brand-new monumental core in Washington, D.C., a mile-and-a-half-long formal axis on the opposite side of the Capitol from the older axis east of the building. The new axis connected the Grant Memorial at the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the bank of the Potomac—the two great leaders of the Union war effort bookending the great space. This pairing was the main wedge of a master plan for central Washington that created a spectacular National Mall, a vast space dedicated to the triumphal story of the nation’s reunion, under Republican leadership, after the Civil War. This new vision literally had no place for the theme of Black liberation, no room for reminders of the great struggle over racial justice that had driven the politics of Reconstruction and created the Freedmen’s Memorial, however faulty its imagery. As the new National Mall became the most important monumental real estate in the U.S., the Freedmen’s Memorial found itself stranded in a declining residential neighborhood, one that was going out of fashion and would soon become predominantly Black.

Aerial view of Lincoln Memorial, April 30, 2007, Credit: Carol M. Highsmith, Public Domain

On the mall, in the inner recesses of Bacon’s temple, Daniel Chester French’s colossal statue of Lincoln focused on him alone, his silent struggle with the burdens of wartime leadership. The inscription on the wall above him celebrated his role as savior of the Union rather than as hero in the abolition of slavery. As before, African Americans were entirely shut out of the memorial planning that led to these design decisions. But this time around they faced a further insult: They were compelled to sit in a segregated rear section at the memorial’s dedication in 1922. There they heard President Harding echo what was already apparent in the conception of the new mall. His speech downplayed the theme of emancipation and elevated Lincoln instead as the preeminent symbol of national “unity.” 

Every Black person in that audience knew that the unity Harding celebrated was cruelly false—built on an apartheid system of Jim Crow that had crushed the rights, the opportunities and the very health and lives of millions of Black Americans. The only African American allowed to mingle that day with the white VIPs was Robert Moton, Booker T. Washington’s successor at Tuskegee Institute, who tried to introduce some honesty into the proceedings. He drafted a bold, blunt speech that bore the unspoken trauma of recent lynchings, North and South, white mob violence in the “Red Summer” of 1919 and the Tulsa massacre of 1921. In a stark rebuttal to Harding’s unity, he wrote that the nation could not endure “half privileged and half repressed…half  protected and half unprotected…half free and half yet in bondage.” The memorial they were dedicating “is but a hollow mockery, a symbol of hypocrisy, unless we together can make real in our national life, in every state and in every section, the things for which he died.” And yet these searing words were never heard: The Republican politicians on the Lincoln Memorial Commission forced him to remove those passages and deliver an anodyne message more in keeping with the self-congratulatory tone of the event. While the national Black press boiled over with outrage at the segregated ceremony, the mainstream white press did not even cover their reaction—an indication of just how thoroughly the Jim Crow system had infected the news media, the federal government and the landscape of commemoration.

Nevertheless, even in such a repressive climate, African Americans soon began to assert their own claims to the Lincoln Memorial. Groups big and small saw how well the monument functioned as a backdrop, much better in fact than the old Freedmen’s Memorial. In front of that older monument, they could not avoid being conscripted by its imagery into a Jim Crow narrative of black subservience. On the steps leading to the Lincoln Memorial, however, they could stand proudly, stylishly, rightfully claiming the memorial as theirs, too, however much whites wanted to hoard it for their own “unity.” Ironically, the absence of emancipation imagery in the colossal sculpture gave Black visitors the space they needed to make their own representations. At the first large organized Black event there, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion convention in 1926, the audience heard the principal speaker directly contradict Harding’s interpretation and reaffirm instead the view that Lincoln’s claim to immortality rested on emancipation, not reunion. But while all these acts were important precursors to Anderson’s concert, they did little at the time to intrude on white consciousness.

Group of men and women in front of Lincoln Memorial, 1932. Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Marian Anderson changed all that. Primed by the national controversy surrounding the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow her into their concert hall, the world was watching and listening on that Easter Sunday in 1939. When Anderson walked down the upper flight of steps, she situated herself against the body of Lincoln above and behind her. It was a symbolic reversal of the Freedmen’s Memorial: Now the two figures, Black and white, were partners, not opposites. For a brief but indelible moment, Black memory and American memory aligned as one. Her voice seemed to emanate from the deepest recesses of Lincoln’s temple and to fill the great canyon of the National Mall. Singing to and for America, she began with the patriotic “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” But as the recital continued, a subversive emotional plot emerged. From that first stirring anthem in the soprano register, she closed the concert in the deep reaches of her magnificent contralto with the slow, mournful “Trampin,” a traditional spiritual ending in the haunting phrase “tryin’ to make heaven my home.” It was, in song, what Moton had wanted to express in oratory: the ongoing hope of America’s Black community in the nation’s promise of equal opportunity, counter-balanced and checked by a seemingly never-ending, grinding struggle to make that heaven a reality.  

Washington’s prominent figures listen to Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. Library of Congress

Anderson’s concert not only transformed the memorial but changed the National Mall forever, turning it from a triumphal vista into the symbolic center of America’s moral conscience. However, as her final song suggested, this shift in representation would not hold without struggle. In the aftermath of the concert, others leapt in to promote a popular imagery of racial reconciliation. No doubt with Anderson fresh on his mind, Frank Capra went to the memorial later in 1939 and filmed on location a silent, elderly black man paying his respects to Lincoln, while a white boy nearby read out loud the Gettysburg Address, for his film about democracy Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Three years later the photographer Marjory Collins made a series of publicity images for the war effort entitled “Negro Boys Admiring the Lincoln Memorial” (although admiration is hardly detectable in their faces, turned away from the camera as they are).  Simple and patriotic, these images visualized Black homage to American ideals in order to boost democracy in its struggle against fascism. 

A publicity photo for the Office of War Information entitled 'Negro boys admiring the Lincoln Memorial,' 1942. Credit: Marjory Collins, Library of Congress

Black activists had other ideas in mind, however, rejecting these images of passive reverence and reclaiming the memorial for their own political agency. In 1957, during the Eisenhower administration, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders organized a national “prayer pilgrimage” to the memorial. He made clear there would be no “lobbying”: They were not coming as a trade association or a labor union pressing for their own special interests. They came, rather, “to arouse the conscience of the nation,” to hold it accountable to its fundamental promise of equality, as pledged in the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. The question they posed was not what favors a Republican administration could bestow on them, but rather whether America itself would live up to its own ideals as professed in the figure of Lincoln and his speeches carved on the memorial walls. Six years later this effort culminated in the epic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King, standing in Anderson’s spot, gave the speech that would itself become a landmark in American history. 

Throughout U.S. history, many groups had tried to lay claim to public monuments for their own agendas, but never had a major monument been so utterly transformed by direct action, and so dramatically thrust into the national psyche. Even the openly revolutionary Black Panthers, who occupied the memorial steps in 1970, chose to join their own radical claims of conscience to a now distinctly American tradition of protest for racial justice. 

People gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a Black Panther Convention, June 19, 1970. Library of Congress

All this helps explain why a photograph of National Guardsmen in body armor and black glasses, arrayed in military formation across the steps of the memorial, during the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, alarmed so many Americans. The memorial, a site of hope and conscience, was suddenly altered into a dystopian vision of militarized civic life. This viral image appeared to many a stark depiction of disproportionate response to Black activism, which, after all, had historically embraced the Lincoln Memorial and turned it into something much better than it was ever intended to be.

The story of the Lincoln Memorial from its inception has been the story of Black activism trying to save white America from its own delusions of supremacy. Amazingly, Black action appropriated and redefined this most white of monuments, but, inevitably, could not liberate the memorial entirely from the repressive forces that still shape the society around it. As Marian Anderson said so prophetically in song that Easter Sunday in 1939, we are still trampin’, trampin’, tryin’ to make heaven our home.


Kirk Savage

Kirk Savage is the author of Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape.

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