Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Robert Russa Moton and the Lincoln Memorial Dedication

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

In 1922, at the unveiling of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., President Warren G. Harding noted that Lincoln ended slavery only to save the Union, not to usher in a new period of racial equality. He further noted the reconciliatory symbolism of the memorial's site - directly across the Potomac from Virginia. The event itself, as one historian has argued, became a "microcosm for the strained race relations of the day, marked by the rhetoric of good intentions and the behavior of bigotry."

And thus we have an example of an event designed for the  reconciliation minded that distanced the cause of Union from the cause of freedom. In fact there was only one speaker of color that day - Robert Russa Moton, Booker T. Washington's successor at the Tuskegee Institute. In a fashion that can only be characterized as patronizing, event coordinators had asked Moton to "speak for his race." But the final draft of his speech would have to pass the close scrutiny of those planning the event. And in the end, heavy editing of Moton's "controversial" material rendered the speech mostly benign. Here is what Moton wanted to say:

[caption id="attachment_2683" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Robert Russa Moton"][/caption]

So long as any group is denied the fullest privilege of a citizen to share both the making and the execution of the law which shapes its destiny - so long as any group does not enjoy every right and every privilege that belongs to every American citizen without regard to race, creed or color, the task for which the immortal Lincoln gave the last full measure of devotion - that task is still unfinished. 

Heated words for a racially charged decade to be sure...excised from Moton's speech. In many cases, national events such as these specifically designed to ease any sectional tensions were devoid of such troubling language - and I offer this one as an example. But I would like to remind my dear readers that such events were not typical of dedication ceremonies on the larger scale. In both the North and South, sectionally aligned events were more often than not laced with controversy.




  1. So why did Moton agree to participate? Didn't he just add his imprimatur to a racist rewrite of history?

  2. That is a very good question, Pat. His agreeing to appear even though his words were heavily edited has piqued my interest. This is certainly worth looking in to further.

  3. Read Adam Fairclough's essay, "Civil Rights and the Lincoln Memorial: The Censored Speeches of Robert Moton (1922) and John Lewis (1963) for more background on this. And look at Moton's later experience with Herbert Hoover and you will see why Moton became a leader in moving black voters from the Republican to Democratic Part to support Franklin Roosevelt.