On this day in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. Warren G. Harding was president, so he spoke. And Robert Todd Lincoln, Honest Abe’s son, was still around, so he came, as did the former president and current Chief Justice of the United States, William Howard Taft. Considering Lincoln’s legacy, it seemed only appropriate that an African American say a few words, and Taft appointed a Virginian for that role: Robert Russa Moton. He was Booker T. Washington‘s successor as principal of the Tuskegee Institute and the most powerful African American at that time.
Moton spoke to a segregated audience and, despite being handpicked, his speech betrayed his reservations about the success of American democracy. He compared two ships bound for America—the Mayflower, headed for Plymouth and a promised land of religious freedom, and a slave ship en route from Africa to Jamestown, carrying its human cargo. Ever since then, Moton observed, two principles had been contending for the soul of America: liberty and bondage.
Moton’s talk was early in the program, allowing for corrections from subsequent speakers. Both Harding and Chief Justice Taft distracted attention from Moton’s point, asserting that Lincoln’s greatness lay in his saving the nation, not freeing the slaves. Washington papers also glossed over Moton’s talk and even re-interpreted the gist of it, but black journalists were not as easily hoodwinked. The editor of the black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, wrote a scathing, but prescient, piece. Moton’s words, he said, fell “on ears closed and deaf to reason” and Harding’s speech “opened” the memorial, but did not “dedicate” it. The editor called for a boycott of the monument until “juster and more grateful men come to power and history shall have rebuked offenders against the name of Abraham Lincoln.” He closed with a remarkable prediction:
With song, prayer, bold and truthful speech, with faith in God and country, later on let us dedicate the temple thus far only opened. —June 10, 1922
A version of this post was originally published on May 30, 2012.
IMAGES: Moton speaks at the Lincoln Memorial dedication, May 30, 1922 (Library of Congress); the title page and page 1 of his address (Library of Congress)