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Pauline Lerner

In the Shadow of Mr. Lincoln

January 27, 2009 at 2:55 PM

My father was a great fan of Abraham Lincoln. He liked the man's rise from humble origins (a log cabin) to the Presidency. He liked Lincoln's homespun yarns and wit and quoted samples of them frequently. He was tall and thin, like Lincoln, and sometimes dressed up as Honest Abe for parades on patriotic occasions. Of course, the thing he admired most about President Lincoln was his freeing the slaves. This seemed especially appropriate during the Civil Rights Era. My family lived in Baltimore, about 40 miles from Washington DC, and we made frequent pilgrimages to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington while I was growing up. I was always impressed with the Lincoln Memorial. Standing at the foot of the large statue and looking up at the great seated figure always gave me a feeling of deep reverence.


In school, I was taught something different: that Lincoln did not free the slaves, and the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves. What freed the slaves was the military victory of the Union in the Civil War. I don't know enough to evaluate this view of history, but I do know that Lincoln is respected and admired by many people for freeing the slaves. That's good enough for me.


I have read about or seen photos of several historic events at the Lincoln Memorial. The first one centered on the great American opera singer Marion Anderson. In 1939, she was denied permission to sing to an integrated audience at Constitution Hall, owned by the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) simply because she was African American. In the resulting controversy, thousands of DAR members resigned, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. Her concert, attended by more than 75,000 people, black and white, was a great success.



Another defining event for our nation -- and for me, personally -- was the Civil Rights rally on the Mall in August, 1963, where Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. My father took me there. I remember King's speech vividly. He was a powerful orator, and his effect on the crowd was almost palpable. I couldn't see him as well there as I could later in news films and photographs. I have a strong mental image of him in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and also one of Peter, Paul, and Mary singing there. I have heard and read his speech many times since then, and it always moves me deeply. Here is a partial extract of it.



Earlier this month, another historic event occurred in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Barack Obama, the first African American to be elected President, attended a preinaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. There he gave a very moving speech, in which he referred to President Lincoln as "the man who in so many ways made this day possible." On Inauguration Day, January 22, 2008, Obama was sworn in as President with one hand on Lincoln's Bible.


President-Elect and Mrs. Obama in front of the statue of Lincoln




I watched all of this and more on simulcasts on the Internet. Later I visited youtube again and again, watching the preinaugural concert, the Inauguration, and Obama's speeches over and over. I felt excited, happy, and proud to be an American. I only wish that my father had lived long enough to see so much of the Promise fulfilled.

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