The Lincoln Memorial as a site for continued memory

Processual, Usable, and Unpredictable

In 1922 when the Lincoln Memorial was finished (see this post for information about its creation: and officially dedicated, the speakers praised Lincoln’s accomplishments in uniting and preserving the nation, hardly mentioning his character and not celebrating the freedom of slavery at all [1]. Now, the Lincoln Memorial is seen as a site of memory that is infused with undertones of equality, honesty, and a nation of good character, all of which have become synonymous with Abraham Lincoln. Due to the processual, usable, and unpredictable nature of memory itself [2], the site of the monument has been the background of many events after its construction that have each used it in different ways and have left an imprint on the meaning of the Lincoln Memorial.

“I Have A Dream” Speech

The most well-known demonstration that took place at the Lincoln Memorial is undoubtedly the March on Washington, which cumulated with the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. As pictured below, King chose to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Monument to deliver his riveting and unforgettable speech.

The March on Washington, most famous for Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, is pictured here from the viewpoint of the Lincoln Monument.

The March on Washington, most famous for Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, is pictured here from the viewpoint of the Lincoln Monument.

This space was deliberately chosen to be the site of MLK’s cry for counter-memory due to its established connection to African Americans, as King worked to further the work of the “The Great Emancipator.” This iconic scene, with King superimposed on the backdrop of the Lincoln Monument for one of the most recognizable speeches in history has itself been transformed to its own site of memory.

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington speech in 2013, while most people honored the event as a pivotal point in our nations history at which our society changed for the better, the background of the speech itself was compromised. Vandals splashed green paint on the monument, both on the base and on the Lincoln’s lap [3].

The green paint that was splashed onto the Lincoln Monument in 2013.

The green paint that was splashed onto the Lincoln Monument in 2013.

While no explicit message was written and no real explanation of the vandal’s intentions were revealed, many citizens were saddened and appalled that someone would defile such a positive American icon [4]. This is an unexpected representation of the continued memory practices at the memorial because there does not appear to be a specific cause that is being portrayed, but rather a seemingly hollow vandalism. However, this kind of demonstration still exhibits a sort of memory practice, as it denotes the site to just that: a site. Through all the symbolism attached to the Lincoln Memorial, all of the rallies that have taken place there, and all of the deep meanings associated with the monument, it is in the end just a carved piece of stone that can be compromised through just a quick splash of paint.

President Nixon Speaks to Student Protesters

One of the more bizarre demonstrations that took place at the Lincoln Memorial was during the 1970 Vietnam War Protests. Throngs of students occupied the Mall to call for an end to the war, as was very common at the time, but what made this time different was the confrontation by President Nixon. Confusing the protesters, onlookers, and newscasters alike, he marched out of the White House on May 9 and walked to the Lincoln Memorial where he met with the crowd [5]. This interaction remained a true mystery until in 2011 the transcripts were produced publicly, shedding some light on the scene [6]. It appears Nixon struck up conversation with the students, first asking about their stay in Washington and then explaining his views not only on the war, but about other prevalent issues to the young Americans like peace, the “Negro problem,” environmental concerns, and even talked a bit about his own background. He interacted with only about 30 students and as 5:00am approached, he left as casually and strangely as he had appeared [7].

Young people protest the Vietnam War on the mall in 1970.

Young people protest the Vietnam War on the mall in 1970.

This scene represents a very nontraditional experience of memory at one of the most prominent landmarks of D.C. and is an example of how memory can be unpredictable and often confusing. Nixon’s interaction with the occupiers was unlike any other Presidential act to date, and the fact that this strange scene was set at the Lincoln Memorial was not lost on the public. Protests like the ones staged by students are fairly regular and expected on the mall, but events like Nixon’s encounter added to the unforeseeable nature of processual memory making. Further, this represents how one site, like the Lincoln Memorial, can be used as the backdrop for an endless variety of memory practices that may not even be related to the original purpose of the monument.

Easter Sunday Church Service

A few weeks ago, Capital Church hosted the 37th annual Easter Sunday church service in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In what is surely a beautiful landscape, thousands of people gather, facing the monument, to attend a sunrise service [8].

The crowd surrounding the Lincoln Memorial during the Easter Sunday service in 2015, hosted by Capital Church.

The crowd surrounding the Lincoln Memorial during the Easter Sunday service in 2015, hosted by Capital Church.


The connection of the Lincoln Memorial to Easter, however, began in 1939 when Marian Anderson was denied the right to sing at Constitution Hall because she was black [9]. She then moved her concert to the steps of the monument and performed on Easter Sunday for 75,000 people in the open air. While the “I Have A Dream” speech is the most recognizable event that transpired on the steps of the west end of the Mall, this concert was the first time Lincoln had been re-used as a symbol in the Civil Rights Movement [10]. The monument, originally an honor to the man who preserved the country, had become a site that was used to exemplify the nation’s expectations of freedom, equality, and fairness, portraying Lincoln instead as the “Great Emancipator.”

The yearly Easter Sunday Service, then, has become a civic tradition and evokes memories not only of the religious implications of the holiday, but also of the nationalistic ideals that the image of Lincoln has come to represent. The virtues that were ingrained in the knowledge of Lincoln (see this post about Honest Abe in Commercial Culture: often run parallel to Christian ideology. Though Lincoln was never openly religious or officially connected to a particular sect, his emphasis on honesty, good character, and the fact that he was the man to free chattel slaves allow Christians to make his personal virtues a site of usable memory. This is enacted most clearly in the church service held on the steps of the monument, and those in attendance undoubtedly feel a collective understanding, possibly even drawing connections between Jesus and Lincoln, as both are celebrated at such a gathering.

Works Cited
1. Sandage, Scott A. “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory.” JSTOR. The Journal of American History, June 1993. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
2. Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication (1995): 214–239. Print.
3. “Vandals Splatter Lincoln Memorial with Green Paint.” CNN. Cable News Network, 26 July 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
4. Phillips, Susan, and Manny Fantis WUSA-TV Washington. “Lincoln Memorial Vandalized with Green Paint.” USA Today. Gannett, 26 July 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
5. McNichol, Tom. “I Am Not a Kook: Richard Nixon’s Bizarre Visit to the Lincoln Memorial.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 14 Nov. 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

6. Suarez, Ray. “New Nixon Tapes Reveal Details of Meeting With Anti-War Activists.” PBS. PBS, 25 Nov. 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

7. Ahlers, Mike M., and Athena Jones. “Tape Sheds Light on Surreal Meeting between Nixon, Protesters.” CNN. Cable News Network, 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
8. “Thousands Expected to Attend Easter Sunrise Service at the Lincoln Memorial.” WTOP. Washington’s Top News, 04 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
9. “Stories.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 13 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

10. Arsenault, Raymond. The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Google Books. 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

2 thoughts on “The Lincoln Memorial as a site for continued memory

  1. Virginia Riel


    This post is truly insightful. I admire the way that you framed the entire site of memory around Zelizer’s premises and then gave evidence to support it. It is a very effective method; I wish that I had considered this deductive approach when conducting my own site! Your initial statement about leaving “an imprint on the meaning of the Lincoln Memorial” is particularly powerful. I also really enjoyed how you incorporated Marian Anderson, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Vietnam War protesters, and the Easter Church Services simultaneously in a way that read as a coherent narrative. Well done!

    You might want to make sure the link in the first paragraph is active, just for easy navigating, but everyone can copy and paste so it isn’t that big of a deal.

    Your post and ideas resonated with me. Thanks for sharing!

    –Virginia Riel

  2. Aidan Kelley

    I agree with Virginia’s comment — this was a quite insightful post. I was particularly interested with the concepts that overlapped with my own post, “The Legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation in the Continued Fight for Civil Rights.” Like you, I was heavily influenced by Zelizer concepts of processual and usable memory, and also emphasized the symbolic significance of Dr. King occupying the space in front of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his “I Have a Dream Speech.” This act was indeed a site of usable and processual memory, that signified the passing of the torch from Lincoln to King, as the new deserved figurehead of civil rights for black Americans. Thank you for eloquently voicing these concepts, and helping me to frame my own arguments.

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