Then in 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King gave his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” from its steps. To King, Lincoln was a flawed figure in certain ways, occasionally guilty of “vacillating.” But he brilliantly borrowed Lincoln’s rhetoric to weave the struggle of his people into the wider story of American history. The sight of thousands of peaceful supporters, listening on the steps, seemed to prove it. It remains the defining image of the Lincoln Memorial.
For all of these reasons, it was disorienting to see those steps blocked by National Guardsmen—who were there not to air out their views, but to prevent the public from doing so. The steps are important to the memorial: They lead visitors steadily upward, where they can approach Lincoln, read his words, and gaze back at the Capitol. The stunning visual panorama is a well-calibrated effect, consonant with Lincoln’s belief that our democracy must, somehow, spring from the people.
The wide steps—perfect for social distancing—are another part of the memorial’s appeal. In many ways, this is a monument to civility. But at times when Americans are deeply divided, the memorial can reflect that division.
Fifty years ago, that kept happening, throughout an embattled year that increasingly resembles our own. As 1970 began, a divisive president, Richard Nixon, was appealing to his base with racially coded dog whistles, while fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam and trying to contain protests over everything from the environment to women’s rights. Naturally, the protesters often found their way to Lincoln’s steps, where the oversize statue seemed, vaguely, to sympathize with the mandate for change.