Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Higher Purpose

President Lincoln, Dr. King, and the National Parks

 Realizing the Dream by Jared Frederick

2013 marks the hallmark anniversaries of two momentous orations in American History: Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington speech.  This days marks the fiftieth anniversary of that latter proclamation.  Accordingly, I wish to share some thoughts on the historical and contemporary meanings of it all.  For our purposes, let us first consider Civil War before Civil Rights.  Being the Gettysburg enthusiast I am, I find myself continually allured to the lively currents of Lincoln's two minute manifesto in the streams of the nation's consciousness.  The Gettysburg Address was, above all else, a highly political and partisan speech in which the president implemented the graves of Federal soldiers to illustrate dedication to Union.  Condemned by political adversaries of the time as distasteful rhetoric for the occasion, the speech nevertheless gained appreciation as being representative of humankind's ongoing movement to improve its own condition.

Indeed, civil rights advocates of a century later and into the present realized and embraced this philosophy.  Only weeks before King's speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, fellow advocate Medgar Evers was shot down by a white supremacist in his driveway.  When police returned his wallet to his widow, Myrlie, she discovered a five dollar bill within it.  Lincoln's engraved profile was doused with her husband's blood.  As she later wrote in her memoir, "I stood there staring at it, my hand trembling, my heart bruised and aching, and I thought about these two men who lived a hundred years apart" (329).  Her aptly titled book was For Us, the Living, a direct quote from Lincoln's Gettysburg oration.  Subsequently, Evers's funeral procession temporarily paused in front of the 16th president's shrine before it proceeded to Arlington Cemetery.  The essence of Lincoln's words were expounded in the name of completing what civil rights advocates considered to be the "unfinished work" of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had these exact thoughts in mind as he scripted his now glorified speech of August 28, 1963.  In his remarks, King sought to draw direct allusions to the Gettysburg Address, wishing to exemplify the universal and ongoing struggle for a sense of justice.  While many are familiar with the "I have a dream" portion of his statements, he began by noting:

"I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free."

Americans of the time sat at a crossroads in regard to both their future and their past.  Seeking to instill a sense of national consensus and unity in the Cold War era, state and national planners of the ongoing Civil War centennial sought to make no parallels between the convergent emancipation themes of the 1860s and the 1960s.  Even the National Park Service, guardian of many battlefields and monuments,  was occasionally complicit in this unfortunate pattern of disregarding the Civil War's legacies.  August 28 was an exception.  

Present amidst the tens of thousands on the National Mall that day was the associate director of the National Park Service, George Hartzog, who realized that interpreting the multiple dimensions of America's treasures and sagas had to be viewed beyond a single lens.  Parks were "delicate strands of nature and culture that bond generation to generation," he once said.  With these convictions in mind, two park rangers (one black, one white) were placed alongside King as he delivered his speech.  I recreated this scene in the original pen and ink sketch you see above.  This act of the typically non-partisan National Park Service was an astounding one, a move which also coincided with President Kennedy's evolution of thought in regard to the broader Civil Rights Movement.

Hartzog was not at a loss in this moment, fully realizing the gravity of this non-verbal statement.  "What higher purpose can a national park serve," he said, "than to be responsive to the crisis in our society, to the voice of the underprivileged, to the voice of the protester who's objecting to the institutional status quo?"  In other words, National Parks should be microcosms of government and communities themselves--open forums of, by, and for the people.

George Hartzog, NPS.
Fifty years later, similar acts of solidarity in tandem with social movements may seem beyond the capacity of the contemporary Park Service.  One might be hard pressed to imagine park rangers standing on either side of advocates speaking out on behalf of LGBT issues, women's rights, or underprivileged youth at such a large venue.  On the other hand, maybe they would be wrong to think so.

The late historian John Hope Franklin, who had his own unique views on this momentous event (video), sums up the matter best.  In a 2000 statement to the National Park Service, he reflected:

"The places that commemorate sad history are not places in which we wallow, or wallow in remorse, but instead places in which we may be moved to a new resolve, to be better citizens. . . . Explaining history from a variety of angles makes it not only more interesting, but also more true. When it is more true, more people come to feel that they have a part in it. That is where patriotism and loyalty intersect with truth."

Having an open and wide breadth of history allows us not only to analyze the past, but also to comprehend and build upon the dynamic social issues we confront today.  National Parks provide the ideal landscapes to engage in such constructive debate regardless of your political ideology.  Dr. King realized this fact.  We should continue to do the same fifty years later.

No comments:

Post a Comment