WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Lincoln’s legacy looms over the Capital in the shape of his century-old memorial.
He presided over some of the most transformative events of the last century… Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream speech” to the Vietnam war protests.
So it’s hard to believe that this 19-feet high, 175-ton Abraham Lincoln – one of the most recognizable memorials in all the world – almost never existed. And for a familiar reason – Congressional gridlock over government spending.
When you hear people talk about Washington as a swamp – it’s not just a metaphor. Over a century ago the area actually was a swamp. It was a place for vagrants, and as legend has it, even a place to dump dead bodies.
The monument would cost three million dollars to build. Doesn’t sound like a lot in today’s terms, but back then it was the most expensive in history.
“Joe Cannon, who was the Speaker of the House, he called it a swamp and he didn’t understand how we could have a presidential memorial out here,” Secretary for the Commission of Fine Arts Thomas Luebke said.
It took almost a decade, five failed votes in Congress, to approve this site.
“The designer, who was Henry Bacon, came up with this idea of putting this thing on an elevated hillon pylons 60 feet in the air and that’s where the temple of the memorial actually begins,” Luebke said.
Finally in February 1914 – 100 years ago this month – construction began, and took 8 years to complete.
“It’s an epic memorial in that it’s not only to a president, but it actually speaks to this huge American experience that was so important in our history,” Luebke said.
But the Lincoln memorial isn’t just iconic because it commemorates history. It’s because it’s a place where history is made – the place for political protest.
That all started in 1939 – with a concert by opera singer Marian Anderson.
“She had been scheduled to sing at the Daughters of the American Revolution, but when it was learned that the audience would be segregated, she refused to do so. It was a concert, but it was a protest, and people knew it,” Lucy Barber, author of ‘Marching on Washington’ said.
“Afterwards in the 40s and the 50s you just have a steady stream, whether it’s an explicit protest, a conference of the National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People, the prayer pilgrimage organized by Martin Luther King,” Barber said.
“The latest in this chapter was actually at the first Obama Inaugural. The day before, they had a huge event here which was very celebratory, but that actually draws on this very same tradition,” Barber said.
So while the memorial itself is a tribute to Lincoln, from his famous speeches to his hands – one clenched for strength, the other opened to show compassion – its legacy for the last century is the perch Lincoln provides for Americans to protest, and celebrate.
“This has become a place that the American people really feel attached to,” Barber said.