Lincoln’s figure sits at a throne within a shrine because there’s no better way to honor a president that adapted and resolved, even at the expense of his life, the crisis of his time. Lincoln could have easily avoided the responsibilities of the Civil War by shielding himself behind cardboard ideologies of “democracy” and “republicanism” that would mean allowing the Confederacy to secede according to the will of their people and their sovereignty as states. The man of the memorial, however, chose to become an impromptu benevolent dictator in order to prevent the downfall of the United States. A simple run-through of his executive actions before and during the war can confirm that notion: he bent the rule of law in order to maintain it when habeas corpus was selectively upheld (or not); he told big lies that people could believe in with his fine rhetoric; and he used military power when it was warranted for the future of the Union even when that strictly went against the will of the people, both in the North and the South. The Civil War did not happen for the sake of Emancipation—that simply happened as a military tool at the time and then became a historical justification later. The war broke out because of politics ran amuck and Lincoln had to restore sanity. The turmoil helped shake the nation out of a stagnant ideology, though, both regarding slavery and regarding the meaning of a republican democracy. The chaos of the war prompted the establishment of a radical new order, one that looked much like the previous one but that felt refined and redefined.
Lincoln set the frame for that change. That’s why it’s “the Lincoln Memorial” rather than the Civil War memorial (as some of my fellows argued). The war was a horrific carnage, and nothing else. The blood of the thousands of men who fought and sacrificed themselves in the battlefields gave the war its magnitude and epic proportion. The men who fought it without fighting, nonetheless, were the ones who gave it its significance by imbuing some sense to the nonsense of war after they had precipitated it—and Lincoln, the President and martyr, must keep the most credit for that.
The MLK memorial, just the same, will honor the man more than it will honor the movement, because once again a single man invested meaning to the whole. Though Dr. King believed that “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression,” (Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1964) he was in fact the Commander-in-Chief of a war. Civil-Rights advocates and adversaries may not have faced each other in grandiose battlefields, yet every march, every protest, and every exercise of segregation were combats and skirmishes in that war. The conflict already existed, with violence surfacing and resurfacing every now and again, each time worsened and escalated by the previous break-out. Dr. King, good commander that he was, not only led and contained the troops of his movements, but also led them to the moral high-ground that would allow them to win the war. Had the Civil-Rights advocates not taken the non-violent stance in the conflict, the fire-hoses and dogs would have eventually demanded tanks and rifles just like a hundred years before. Without MLK’s leadership and symbolic death, the Civil Rights movement could have rapidly degraded, perhaps even turning segregation and discrimination from affronts to humanity to requirements for survival amidst a violent society.
Washington D.C., October 2010.