A Lesson in Social Transformation

It is perhaps one of the most revered places in America. The Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of President Lincoln are a must-see for every American. The memorial is an inspiration in its majesty, but few realize how symbolic the memorial is in the social transformation that it represents.

The statue of Abraham Lincoln was designed by Daniel Chester French, one of the nation’s premier sculptors. He received his training in Italy. The sculptor process began with a small clay model followed by a plaster model. What few people realize is that the final statue was not done by the sculptor. The actual carving of the statue was done by a family of Italian immigrants. The final statue was much larger than the plaster molds developed by the sculptor so the stone carvers had to scale up their work. When we look at Abraham Lincoln in the memorial can we imagine what our country would be like without the contributions of those who chose America to be their new home?

The statue is made of marble and weighs 159 tons. The marble came from a former state in the confederacy: Georgia. Looking at the statue from the front, it’s hard to believe that it actually contains 28 pieces of marble slabs unified into one statue. When we look at Abraham Lincoln can we imagine how the marble itself is a sign of reconciliation? It could have come from the states in the north, but the fact that it was from Georgia is a tribute to a country where our past differences can be forgotten for a better future. The unification of 28 slabs of marble into a statue that shows no visible breaks also evokes a desire to come together as a people.

It was 1939 and as the nation was watching Adolf Hitler marching across Europe, Mahalia Jackson, an African-American gospel singer, stood before a crowd of 75,000 people and began singing “My Country Tis of Thee”. She stood in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln as she sang. She was invited to come to Washington for a concert series sponsored by Howard University. They had hoped to use Constitution Hall for the concert, but the Daughters of the American Revolution only allowed white performers in the venue. As she sang, she changed the lyrics from “of thee I sing” to “to thee we sing”. In her humble way, she was using her voice and the venue to focus on we as Americans united as one. Can we imagine how powerful that simple change in words signified a transformation in our society?

Fast forward to 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before a crowd estimated between 200,000-300,000 people at the March on Washington. As he was speaking, Mahalia Jackson, sitting close to him, shouted out: “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” That became one of the most famous speeches in American history and it shaped American views on civil rights. Can you imagine our society without a call to dream of a different way to view our fellow citizens?

When we look at Abraham Lincoln’s statue, we need to think of it as a symbol of social transformation. One where we accept the contributions of all Americans, no matter where they were born. One where reconciliation replaces grievance and unity replaces divisiveness. One where “we” replaces “I” and one where we can dream of a more just society. Memorials shouldn’t be about those we honor for their deeds but about those who we honor for the values they have taught us.

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