(CNN) — It seems so eternal, doesn’t it?
Shiny white marble. Massive columns. The huge statue of a man sitting upright with solemn dignity and purpose. The face is wise and weary and looks resolutely ahead. Hands – one clenched and the other relaxed. The inscribed speeches calling us to find our best angels and move on.
He has surely been there forever, reminding us and humbling us and guiding us.
Yet the Lincoln Memorial has only been with us for 100 years. It opened on the National Mall, with the Potomac River flowing behind it, on May 30, 1922. It was 57 years after President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by an assassin’s bullet just days after the official end of civil war.
Since then, millions of visitors — American citizens and people from around the world — have come every year to bask in the majesty of the ancient Greek-inspired temple and glean some wisdom from the 16th President of the United States.
In November 1981, I was one of those people.
“Remember This Moment”
A visit to the Lincoln Memorial can inspire admiration and hope.
It was a surreal experience. I had only ventured out of the Deep South once in my life when I found myself staring at the Lincoln statue in awe.
My college journalism fraternity had sponsored a trip to DC during my sophomore year. Much of that journey is now lost in the mists of time. I even had to consult a college friend to set the time for sure.
But the memory of my first visit to the Lincoln Memorial itself remains as clear as the cold, moonlit night I made it.
Our hotel wasn’t far, and I slipped out of the group to see him. Almost no one else was there. Being in near solitude without distractions made everything better.
I was unprepared for what I saw. Or felt.
Flooded with light at night, I was moved by the beauty. But it was the inscriptions that moved me emotionally – especially the last lines of the second inaugural address on the north wall of the chamber.
Without wickedness towards anyone, with charity towards all, with firmness in the right that God gives us to see the right, let us strive to complete the work in which we are to heal the wounds of the nation, to take care of that who will have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all that can bring about and cherish a just and lasting peace between us and with all nations.
We were facing our own problems in the fall of 1981. The United States was in a deep recession. The threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union was a constant underlying worry. And assassination was in the air again – Anwar Sadat of Egypt had been killed a few weeks earlier, and President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II survived assassination attempts in the spring.
It was easy to feel worried about the future – mine, the nation’s and the world’s. But there sat President Lincoln, carrying burdens few would ever understand during America’s greatest crisis, pointing the way forward.
I stopped on my way out to sit on the steps of the memorial, all alone but feeling the arms of my country around me and almost giddy with hope bolstered by youthful optimism. A bright moon illuminated the mall with the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol in the background. And I thought, “Remember this moment. Remember this moment. …”
The nation in 1922
Lincoln was a controversial figure, especially in the defeated South.
A first shovelful of earth took place in 1914, on land decried by some critics as a swamp.
I wonder what personal emotions and thoughts they might have had looking at the brand new structure so long in the making.
The memorial is neoclassical in design and based on the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Maybe that gives it that air of permanence.
According to the NPS, “It consists of a main level on a raised basement with a recessed attic above. The building stands in splendid seclusion within a landscaped circle at the western end of the National Mall.
“A colonnade of 36 Doric columns, representing the number of states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death, surrounds the memorial chamber.”
Inside, the 19-foot-tall statue towers over the visitor, just as his legacy towers over the land.
Americans in May 1922 were in a period of progress and retreat. The United States was victorious with the Allies in World War I, but the Communists were about to officially form the USSR.
America was a nation again, but there was still a lot of work to do.
The next 100 years
Contralto Marian Anderson made history when she performed at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939.
Universal Historical Archive/UIG/Shutterstock
In the 100 years since its opening, the Lincoln Memorial has been the backdrop for national celebrations and witness to pivotal and moving moments in United States history. This is particularly true in the area of civil rights.
And as we hit the 100th anniversary day on May 30, which quite appropriately lands on Memorial Day, our issues remain.
A climate crisis that Lincoln could never have imagined looms over us. Moscow is again an enemy. The plague of inflation is back. Violent crime is on the rise. The pandemic may not be done with us yet. And from a church in Charleston, South Carolina, to a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, the heinous and murderous legacy of slavery continues over 150 years later with no end in sight.
Fireworks go off over the Lincoln Memorial on July 4, 2019. It’s the backdrop for many nationwide celebrations.
It sure feels like a nation divided, and I feel more worried than ever about the future. Youthful optimism was replaced some 40 years later by hard-earned disappointment and seemingly justified pessimism.
Still, we will go to the memorial. And hope. What else can we do? To abandon? Lincoln did not. Millions will continue to climb these steps, and some will find wonder and insight. On the south wall of the chamber are these words from the Gettysburg address:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task which lies before us ~ that from these honored dead we take heightened devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion ~ which we here highly decide that these dead shall not have died in vain ~ that this nation under God shall have a new birth of liberty ~ and that the government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.
This lasting memorial, born of crisis and war, is a bastion of hope. Maybe our solutions stay there. If not solutions, at least encouragement to endure fiery trials.
How to visit the Lincoln Memorial
It is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The NPS says “the early evening and morning hours are beautiful and quiet times to visit.”
The memorial sits at the western end of the National Mall, a 2 mile walk from the United States Capitol with the Washington Monument in between.
Forrest Brown attended the University of South Carolina from 1980 to 1983, and he began working with CNN Digital in 2008.