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.
But in the spring, as events spilled out of control, Nixon, too, began to daydream about the statue and the steps. In the first week of May, the country erupted after the invasion of Cambodia, and four students at Kent State University were killed by National Guardsmen on May 4. Predictably, huge crowds came back to the Mall, and their shouts could be heard inside the White House.
In the early hours of May 9, the president was having trouble sleeping and felt the pull of Lincoln. What Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, would later call “the weirdest day so far” began early. At 4:35 am, alarmed Secret Service agents began to report, “Searchlight is on the lawn!” The president ordered his limousine to take him to the Lincoln Memorial, where he found hundreds of protesters, and—amazingly—began to talk to them. He later bragged about how he tried to elevate them out of their intellectual “wasteland,” but in reality, he mainly rambled about the Syracuse football team. Still, he deserved credit for his courage in going there at all. American democracy was slightly less dysfunctional as a result.