Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association concerning the forty-foot tall the Peace Cross at a traffic junction in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.
The cross is a memorial to American solders who died in World War I. It was completed in 1925 and is now maintained with government funds. The Fourth Circuit of Appeals has ruled that this makes it unconstitutional because it “excessively entangles the government in religion.” While the Bladensburg cross was reportedly directly inspired by a wooden cross that marked the grave of an American solider in France, the name “Peace Cross” is shared with another, older, Washington-area monument.
On October 23, 1898, President William McKinley attended the dedication of a Peace Cross marking the end of the Spanish-American War. It was erected by Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee on the newly purchased grounds of Washington National Cathedral. It was the first monument on that site.
The inscription on the cathedral Peace Cross states that its purpose was “to mark the founding of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul.” It also bears a petition from the litany in the Book of Common Prayer, “That it may please Thee to give to all Nations Unity Peace and Concord, We beseech Thee to hear us Good Lord.”
While the cross does not explicitly reference the Spanish-American War except to say it was erected in “the historic year 1898,” its link to the end of the war makes it one of America’s first cross-shaped war memorials. It probably influenced the erection and naming of the Bladensburg cross seven miles to the east.
[Washington National Cathedral is owned and maintained by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, and thus is not involved in the constitutional questions before the Supreme Court.]
For sixty-seven years, Washington’s most prominent annual religious-political event has occurred not in house of worship but in a hotel ballroom. Yet the site of the Washington Hilton, where the National Prayer Breakfast has been held for at least the last three decades, was almost the home not of a hotel, but a of church.
In February 1953, when the newly-inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower attended the first such breakfast, the site of today’s Hilton was known as Temple Heights. It was one of the largest undeveloped sites remaining in central Washington and occupied a commanding hillside location at the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, NW. Near the top of the hill stood Oak Lawn, a mansion built in 1873. The rest of the nine-and-a-half-acre site was grass and woods.
Just a few days before the first prayer breakfast, Eisenhower had joined the National Presbyterian Church. The congregation dated back to the earliest years of the capital, but had received this name from its denomination only in 1947 in an effort claim a larger role for Presbyterians in American life. The fact that the new Republican president joined the congregation was a boost to Presbyterian pride. Two years later, congregation leaders began an earnest effort to secure Temple Heights for a new, landmark church.
National Presbyterian’s existing building was a Romanesque revival church completed in 1889 at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, NW. It was handsome and just around the corner from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was, however, no rival to the mammoth national churches being built by Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (Washington National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). It also lacked the educational and recreational spaces of new suburban churches as well as their plentiful parking. Many felt that a new building was urgently needed.
Like the founding of the prayer breakfast, the drive to build a new monumental church was part of a Cold War emphasis on the link between religion and American national identity. Few denominations saw themselves as more central to American history than Presbyterians and Temple Heights was a seemingly perfect location for a landmark church.
The architect’s sketch of the proposed building shows it looming like a medieval cathedral over the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, separated from the capital’s grit and politics by a verdant forest, but drawing many to worship in its walls. Such a church would clearly give Presbyterians a fitting platform for ministry in the nation’s capital.
The building’s clean, modern lines suggested the 1950s’ most famous cathedral project–the new cathedral at Coventry, England. As in Basil Spence’s design for Coventry, the windows of the nave were angled toward the altar to provide it with dramatic light. The clean, modern lines also echoed Coventry and bespoke the International Style and the machine age. But Presbyterian church’s massing owed more to the Gothic revival, with pitched roof and a tall tower next to the nave. As at Riverside Church in New York City, the church tower took the form of a skyscraper. From the hillside location, the upper floors of an office tower on the south side of the nave would have had clear views of the Washington Monument.
Congregation leaders worked through the year to secure the needed funds to buy and develop on the expensive site, but in the end were unable to do so. The Presbyterian proposal joined a long list of unfulfilled dreams for Temple Heights including a Masonic temple and a twenty-one building glass and concrete complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The lower portion of the site was sold off for office buildings in 1956 and the Hilton was built on the upper portion in 1965. Eventually, in 1969, National Presbyterian opened a new large modern church of modern design on a less prominent site on Nebraska Avenue near American University.
With the National Prayer Breakfast, Temple Heights is still a site of national religious assembly and influence, though not religious architectural presence. In American religious life the influence of religious groups is often not linked to their architectural place in the landscape.
In an earlier post I mentioned that some evangelical supporters of President Donald Trump see him as “a ‘Cyrus’ figure.” A few recent publications have brought more attention to that idea.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Katherine Stewart reports that evangelical author Lance Wallnau has drawn draws a rhetorical connection between the 45th president and a chapter of Isaiah in which Cyrus appears, “I believe the 45th president is meant to be an Isaiah 45 Cyrus.” Stewart further explains,
Ralph Drollinger, who has led weekly Bible study groups in the White House attended by Vice President Mike Pence and many other cabinet members, likes the word “king” so much that he frequently turns it into a verb. “Get ready to king in our future lives,” he tells his followers. “Christian believers will — soon, I hope — become the consummate, perfect governing authorities!”
The great thing about kings like Cyrus, as far as today’s Christian nationalists are concerned, is that they don’t have to follow rules. They are the law. This makes them ideal leaders in paranoid times.
In a Washington Post interview published the next day, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. doesn’t explicitly compare Trump to Cyrus, but does state that there is nothing Mr. Trump will do that will jeopardize his evangelical support. He also firmly endorses a form of a two kingdoms theology.
There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country.
Such a theology does not require supporters to value the president’s personal character or religious faith. Though as Stewart points out their preference for him as a strong, unquestioning leader does dovetail with many recent themes in conservative evangelical theology and church polity. Strong executives are in, congregational government is out.
President Trump altered his Christmas plans and remained in D.C. to deal with the government shutdown. Mrs. Trump flew back to D.C. from Florida on Christmas Eve afternoon. At 10 p.m. they attended service of Holy Eucharist at Washington National Cathedral. It was Trump’s third visit as president to the cathedral and his first for a regularly scheduled public service. They were seated by Dean Randy Hollerith immediately before the dean welcomed the congregation to the service.
In her sermon, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, challenged worshipers to take their place in God’s redemptive story and to listen for the word that God was saying to them in this service tonight. She quoted contemporary Christian author Rachel Held Evans and the German Jesuit Alfred Delp. Her most extensive quotations, however, were from the African American theologian and mystic, Howard Thurman.
She began the heart of her sermon quoting Thurman, “Celebrating Christmas affirms our solidarity with the whole human race in its long struggle to become more humane and to reveal the divinity in which all humanity shares.” Citing Rachel Held Evans, she insisted that our lives would find their meaning in the biggest story we can imagine and place ourselves in. This could be “nationalism, follow your bliss, or he who dies with the most toys wins,” but it should be God’s story of redemption.
The story of Christmas has “social implications,” she insisted and mentioned that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were forced to flee and take refuge in a foreign country. But as for what those social implications were for those listening to her, she left that to them to discover. Whatever God was calling them to do, she challenged them to “be instruments of God’s love for love’s sake.”
The cathedral’s video stream did not focus on the Trumps or other members of the congregation, but it did show them both the President and the First Lady receiving communion and singing “Silent Night.”
The video of the service and the service leaflet are available on YouTube
[UPDATES: Late Christmas afternoon The Washington Post published a story on the sermon (click here). NPR also broadcast an interview with Bishop Budde that afternoon on All Things Considered (click here).]
There are millions of things more important than the church going customs of the president of the United States, especially at present. But since everything the president does is charted by someone, it is worth noting that President Trump’s announcement that, due to the government shutdown, he will stay in Washington for Christmas will alter his custom of going to church on Christmas Eve.
The past two years, Mr. Trump and his wife have attended a Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida. This 1925 Gothic revival church is the same church in which they were married. They have also attended this church at Easter.
In Washington, to my knowledge, the Trumps have attended regularly-scheduled services only once. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the president attended a Sunday service on September 3 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square to mark the national day of prayer he had declared.
St. John’s is the unofficial church of the presidents and the closest to the White House. It has been visited by every president since it opened in 1816. Recently, it was the Washington church that both President Bush and President Obama attended most frequently. None of these three recent presidents was an Episcopalian when they were elected, but all found Episcopal churches most convenient and appropriate to their churchgoing in office.
Mr. Trump was raised a Presbyterian and Mrs. Trump a Roman Catholic. One may hypothesize that like many other Protestant-Catholic couples, they find the Episcopal Church to be an appropriate common church home. Attending churches well known to the Secret Service, also is surely a convenience to the government.
This year, Mrs. Trump and her son are already in Florida. She will return to Washington to spend Christmas with the president. Given that Washington church attendance would require last-minute adjustments for security, I won’t be surprised if the Trumps skip church this Christmas eve.
In the age of television, the world has watched the funerals of nine U.S. presidents. These funerals had many stages, including, rites in the city of death, lying in state in Capitol Rotunda, a church service in Washington, and rites at the place of burial. For George H.W. Bush and his two immediate predecessors in death, the key stage was the funeral at Washington National Cathedral. At two hours and nine minutes, Bush’s service was a full forty minutes longer than either of theirs, and four times longer than the 1969 service at the cathedral for President Eisenhower. (Details below)
One reason for the greater length of the cathedral funerals for Reagan, Ford, and Bush is that they have included eulogies. Former president Dwight Eisenhower was eulogized by President Richard Nixon in the Capitol Rotunda as was former Herbert Hoover by president Lyndon Johnson. There were no eulogies or even homilies the church services for Hoover and Eisenhower.
During ceremonies in the Rotunda, many attendees must stand. They are subject to fatigue. At the ceremony for Gerald Ford in December 2006, Michigan congressman William Broomfield collapsed. Delivering the eulogies in a church presents a more comfortable situation, though with the consequence of more intimately mixing the civic and the religious.
Nixon’s funeral included five addresses. There were four tributes by friends, family, or national leaders and one homily by a clergyman. The same pattern has been followed in subsequent services. Bush’s funeral was longer than Reagan’s and Ford’s not because of a greater number of addresses, but because of their greater average length and the inclusion of longer scripture readings, additional prayers, and music.
The three recent funerals have included more music including offerings by military and ecclesiastical groups and, in the case of Reagan and Ford, by famous musicians. They have also been conducted not only in an Episcopal cathedral, but by Episcopal clergy and according to Episcopal liturgies. While this is no surprise for Episcopalians Ford and Bush, Reagan was at the time of his death a Presbyterian. Eisenhower was also a Presbyterian, and when he was buried from the cathedral his service was led primarily by a Presbyterian minister according to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
Today the Episcopal Church calls for more participation by the congregation in funeral than it did in former times. At Hoover’s Episcopal funeral in 1964, the congregation was asked to stand, sit, kneel, recite the Lord’s Prayer, and respond to other prayers with, “Amen.” At Bush’s funeral the congregation was not asked to kneel but they were was invited to sing two hymns, recite acclamations after scripture readings, participate in a litany, and recite the Apostles’ Creed as well as respond to the prayers with an “Amen.” Much of this stems from the new Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1979 as part of the liturgical reform movement that also reshaped Roman Catholic worship and that of many other denominations. One effect of these changes has been to lengthen the service.
It is tempting to hypothesize that the war-time funerals of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson were simpler out of deference to the many Americans who were loosing loved ones in the service of their country. It is probably truer to say that American funeral custom has changed. While singer Aretha Franklin’s day-long funeral in August was exceptional, it is indicative of a trend among some Americans.
I remember that when I was a child, my father took pride in saying that the Book of Common Prayer provided the same funeral for “king and commoner.” Comparing the Bush funeral to those in my local parish church, that is still true. It is simply that kings, or in this case presidents, have friends who are senators, prime ministers, and award-winning musicians.
Made for Television
While the funerals of Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Johnson were all well televised according to the capacity of their day, Nixon’s 1994 California funeral was the first to be carefully crafted for television in the era of the 24/7 news cycle. Reagan’s funeral a decade later did the same, but on a much larger scale. It set a new standard.
Some traditional aspects of Reagan’s funeral, such as the horse-drawn procession, were not used by Ford and Bush. Other aspects such as the more elaborate church service were. From ancient times until the age of television, slow processions were a major way the public participated in funerals. They remained so through the mid-twentieth century for the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. But as media have involved, so has the means of public participation. Today televised indoor services receive the most attention.
Length of Presidential Funerals in Churches in Washington, D.C.
Six of the nine televised presidential funerals have involved a service at a D.C. church with the body present. The length of the church funeral given below is from the moment the clergy receive the body outside the church to when the body exits the church. It excludes outdoor military honors.
(The timings are based on videos of the services provided at the links below. An exception is Eisenhower’s. I have not yet located a recording of the complete service, so the time is based on information provided by the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.)
1963, November 25, John F. Kennedy, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, pontifical low requiem mass, eulogy by the Most Reverend Philip M. Hannan, 1 hour 5 minutes.
1969, March 31, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Washington National Cathedral, funeral service, 30 minutes.
1973, January 25, Lyndon B. Johnson, National City Christian Church, funeral service including addresses by W. Marvin Watson and the Reverend George Davis, 54 minutes.
2004, June 11, Ronald W. Reagan, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and the Reverend John C. Danforth, 1 hour, 30 minutes.
2007, January 2, Gerald R. Ford, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George H.W. Bush, Henry A. Kissinger, Thomas J. Brokaw, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Robert Certain, 1 hour 29 minutes
2018, December 5, George H.W. Bush, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite II including addresses by Jon Meacham, Brian Mulroney, Alan K. Simpson, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr., 2 hours, 9 minutes.F
Length of Funerals Elsewhere
The funerals of Hoover, Truman, and Nixon each included a televised religious service, but not from a Washington church.
1964, 21 October, Herbert C. Hoover, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, New York, New York, Burial of the Dead, President Johnson attended the service which occurred before Hoover was taken to Washington to lie in state. Hoover lay in repose before and after the service, so unlike the others the length of the service does not include a procession into and out of the church, 15 minutes.
1972, 28 December, Harry S Truman, Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri, indoor funeral service, 39 minutes. This was a private family service. President Nixon had flown to Independence to pay his respects to Mrs. Truman earlier and did not attend the service nor the official memorial service at Washington National Cathedral on January 5 which was attended by other government officials and foreign dignitaries. I do not believe that service was televised. According to the New York Times it included an address by the Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, Jr., and lasted 40 minutes.
1994, April 27, Richard M. Nixon, Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California, funeral service including addresses by Henry Kissinger, Robert Dole, Pete Wilson, Bill Clinton, and Billy Graham. While the burial service followed immediately at a slightly different location on the same site, the portion corresponding to the church services above was 1 hour 8 minutes.
When President Donald Trump stood silently during the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed last week, perhaps he was thinking, “I should be home by now.” It would have been a reasonable thought.
The funeral of George H.W. Bush was the longest in the history of televised presidential funerals. It was forty minutes longer than either Ronald Reagan’s or Gerald Ford’s and four times as long as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s.
I’m referring here to the portion of the multi-day funeral conducted inside Washington National Cathedral. From the time his body was received by the bishops at the door of the cathedral until it was borne out through the same doors, two hours and nine minutes elapsed. (I’ll share details on the length of televised presidential funerals in an upcoming post.)
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited the congregation to say the creed one hour and forty-six minutes into the service. The longest previous funeral was Reagan’s at an hour and a half. Bush’s funeral was not longer because of any big difference. It had the same number of tributes as Reagan’s and a similar array of music. But a number of little things combined to make it longer. Among other things, two opening collects were used, not one, the scripture readings were longer, the average length of the addresses was longer, and of course the creed was recited. (Eisenhower’s funeral also included the creed.)
Bush’s leisurely funeral by no means explains the president’s general lack of a receptive expression during the service. Often people sit with friends at funerals. If they do not, they try to make friends with those they are near, especially if they are politicians. As has been widely noted neither the president nor some of his companions in the first row seemed interested in doing this. No doubt it was a long time to sit following someone else’s schedule and feeling alone.
At yesterday’s funeral for George H.W. Bush, President Trump and the First Lady stood for the Apostles’ Creed, but did not recite it, nor did they look at the text printed in their service leaflets. This was also their response to most of the other calls for congregational participation in the service. But many of Trump’s critics on social media took special notice of the creed. (See also Michelle Boorstein’s article on this for the Washington Post.) In part, this was because it was the one long text the congregation was asked to recite rather than sing. In part, it was because the camera clearly broadcast that moment to the world.
Besides giving Trump critics another opportunity to denounce him, the online discussion involved a number of interesting points about the creed.
Is the creed a prayer? When some journalists referred to the creed as a common Christian prayer, others who know the creed quickly corrected them. The creed is a proclamation of faith, a statement to the world, the church, and to God, they said. It is not a prayer to God.
In my experience this basically reflects a difference in vocabulary as well as how Catholics and Protestants use the creed. Many Catholics call it a prayer and think of it as a prayer. It is part of the rosary, and one usually speaks of “praying” the rosary and recites the rosary while kneeling. A creed, usually the Nicene, but sometimes the Apostles’ is part of Sunday mass. Most Catholics think of the dominant action in all of mass as prayer.
In Protestant liturgies, on the other hand, the creed is often introduced with words that definite it as a declaration or proclamation of faith. This is how it is used in baptismal liturgies. (Catholics use a slightly different creed in their baptismal rite.) It is because it is used in baptism that it is included in the Episcopalian funeral rite.
Trump identifies as a Presbyterian, and Presbyterians commonly recite it. While this is true, the majority of Trump’s church going experience was at Marble Collegiate Church, a Reformed Church of America congregation. I don’t know the history of Marble Collegiate’s liturgical practice. But the regular recitation of the Apostles’ Creed is not something that I believe would have been emphasized by its long-time pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking.
Trump is the “evangelical President,” and he doesn’t even know, much less recite the creed. To this many have replied that the recitation of the creed is not a common evangelical practice. Others have said that while many evangelicals love Trump, they recognize that he is not one of their own. To the latter point, I’ll simply say that for some that is true. Some look to him as a “Cyrus” figure. A man from outside God’s people that God has appointed to do his work.
On the former point, it is true that free church evangelical churches, including non denominational churches and many Baptist churches do not use the creed in their worship or education. This is not because of theological objections to the content of the creed, but because of their identity as a non-creedal and/or non-liturgical tradition. I know that many students headed for ministry in evangelical churches encounter the creed for the first time when they are asked to write an essay about it as part of the application process to the divinity school on my campus.
Overall, however, the unfortunate debate is a good moment for liturgy. Liturgies are public. People watch what you do, especially if you are in the front row.
(Additional note added 1:30 CST: In the clip of the funeral accompanying Michelle Boorstein’s article, it appears that Ivanka Trump joined in the recitation of the creed. Since she is an Orthodox Jew, this raises other issues. Participating in televised liturgies when you are a public figure can be a minefield. I also note that perhaps realizing the problematic nature of the Presidential non-recitation, the camera team quickly cut to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry for most of the creed before ending with a wide-angle shot of the clergy.)
This afternoon the service leaflet for George Herbert Walker Bush’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral was published. The most notable differences in liturgical structure between it and the funerals at Washington National Cathedral for Presidents Reagan and Ford and Senator McCain are in the place of the tributes.
At Reagan and Ford’s funeral they came together before the Gospel reading but after all other scripture readings. At McCain’s funeral they came after the opening rites but before the opening collect and the scripture readings.
At Bush’s the first (by historian Jon Meacham) will follow the first reading, the second and third (by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Senator Alan Simpson) follow the second reading. An anthem will then be sung by Ronan Tynan and the Armed Forces Chorus before the fourth tribute by President George W. Bush. This seems better to me than the arrangement at McCain’s where the politically charged eulogies in the first half of the service seemed to many to overshadow the Christian funeral that followed. Mr. Meacham happened to be the guest preacher at the cathedral this past Sunday. It would not be surprising if his remarks were rooted in the text from Isaiah that precedes his tribute.
Reagan’s funeral included participation by Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic clergy as well as Episcopal clergy. At Bush’s as at Ford’s only all the clergy leading the service are Episcopalians. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will open the service and offer the final blessing.
I have not confirmed it, yet but I will not be surprised if this is not the first presidential funeral in which a presiding bishop has participated. The presiding bishop did not participate in leading the services mentioned above.
Lastly, I know that watching McCain’s funeral some were very taken aback by the signing of the patriotic hymn “America the Beautiful” as the cross was brought to McCain’s casket immediately before the committal. See in particular Lizette Larson’s post at Pray Tell. That won’t happen tomorrow. As at Ford’s funeral at this point, the choir will sing the emphatically trinitarian Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”
As at Ford’s funeral the recessional hymn is eight stanza’s of “For All the Saint,” a popular hymn at Episcopalian funerals.
I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for the first time last week. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, and memorializing victims of racial terror lynchings in the United States, its very name suggests its novel character and moving mission. Its form evokes deep experiences of both remembrance and empowerment.
“For” not “to”
Generally our memorials bare the names of past events or persons as in the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Sometimes they are simply known by their location as in the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The reality they remember is seemingly is too hard to name. Occasionally, the preposition “to” is used. The names of Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or the Memorial to the Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia suggest that they are in some sense an offering, in these cases an offering of reparation.
When the word “memorial” is connected with a present reality, however, the word “to” can cause problems. Thus was in 1964 when President Johnson suggested at the National Prayer Breakfast that a “memorial to God” be built in Washington, D.C. Johnson intended it as a physical extension of the piety that had brought the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance a decade earlier and that had enabled Martin Luther King to link God and American freedom in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial six months earlier. But “memorial to God” was a “semantic blunder.” It was wrong, a Methodist editor explained because it “speaks of God in the past tense” (New York Times, March 15, 1964). The idea was quickly abandoned.
While many headlines announcing the Montgomery memorial’s opening in April 2018 referred to it as “a lynching memorial,” Bryan Stevenson and the other developers of the memorial did not choose this name. Many memorials are silent as to the proper response to the events they recall. Their purpose is to remember, sometimes to celebrate. They expose a tragedy or extol a hero, but the response they desire is less clear. One thinks in this respect of the simple list of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or even the more heroic arches and wreaths of the World War II Memorial. In contrast this is a memorial is unambiguous about its purpose to encourage peace and justice.
A Path to Walk
Visitors encounter it through a clear processional path that leads them both around and through all sides of the square, colonnaded, hilltop temple. While the memorial looks like a place to go it, it is actually a path to walk. In this respect, the memorial is more like an interpretive museum than a static monument. Walking south along the memorial’s west side, visitors read signs that explain the development of the story from slavery, through emancipation and reconstruction, to segregation enforced by the racial terror of lynching, to the present day when African Americans are “overrepresented in prisons and jails and underrepresented in decision-making roles in the criminal justice system.” A statuary group by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo vividly depicts the horror of family separation and enslaved person’s defiant humanity.
Then, instructed that the memorial’s purpose is to “inspire individuals, communities, and this nation to claim our difficulty history and commit to a just a peaceful future,” visitors reverse their steps, to ascend to the memorial itself and walk clockwise with the sun where rust-covered corten steel boxes present the visitor with the names of counties and those lynched in them.
Many other writers have described how the rows of memorial boxes, each about as tall as a man transition from a forest of columns through which one walks to symbols of hanging corpses above one’s head as one descends the slope on the memorial square’s northern side. It is a moving and overwhelming experience.
The Comfort of Mountain and Cave
I was struck by the architects’ incorporation of the archetypal experiences of mountain and cave. Ascending the hill, visitors are bathed in the breeze and the sun or the wind and the rain and look down on the valley of the Alabama River and downtown Montgomery. The dome of the State Capitol is just visible between other buildings. But then they descend into the shaded third and fourth sides of the memorial square. There the path proceeds below memorials that loom above and along brief summaries of individual stories, to a memorial wall covered with flowing water.
This cooler, shadowed section provides some comfort, reassurance and shelter from the weather. The flow of the water down the wall only to disappear beneath the floor reminded me of a sinking spring in a cave. In particular I thought of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace where John Russell Pope’s hilltop temple sheltering the log cabin sits above the steps that descend into the cave with the spring that provided water for the Lincolns.
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, May 11, 2003
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, May 11, 2003
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, May 11, 2003
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, May 11, 2003
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, May 11, 2003
While the narrative of the memorial is all about the insecurity of victims of racism and the injustice they received, the very form of the memorial arouses the human experience of security. The promontory provides information and advantage on the threats below. The cave with its spring provides shelter and refreshment. The memorial puts visitors in primordial places of power so that they are pushed forward “for peace and justice.”
The Field of Action
With a drinking fountain and an exhortation to love, defiance, and self-respect from Toni Morrison visitors exit the cave and the memorial square into the southern sky over an unshaded field.
Here the struggle for peace and justice resumes. Visitors again reverse themselves to walk counter-clockwise through duplicates of the memorials that hang inside. They are waiting to be reclaimed by counties across the nation that make plans to remember racial terror in their landscape. The future placement of these boxes in locations across the nation will extend the memorial’s presence and help it remake the story told by the built landscape of the south as its planners propose. Earning the right to reclaim the box requires tangible efforts toward peace and justice. Thus immediately upon leaving the memorial square, visitors have something to do.
It will be interesting to see how the absence of some boxes and the presence of others is interpreted by the memorials architects and visitors in the future. For now, with a church wonderfully named the Old Ship of Zion standing outside the fence, the field feels like a graveyard.
To exit the memorial visitors continue counter-clockwise along three sides of the square. Once again they overlook the city with its towers of finance and government and a historic house of worship in the foreground. A statue of individuals sticking their hands up out of a block of concrete provides a final suggestion of the contemporary needs for peace and justice.
The spiral from the hillside out into the city for action reminded me of the concluding stanzas of a hymn for social justice written during the height of racial terror.
O Master, from the mountain side,
make haste to heal these hearts of pain;
among these restless throngs abide,
O tread the city’s streets again;
Till all the world shall learn thy love,
and follow where thy feet have trod;
till glorious from thy heaven above,
shall come the city of our God.