Today marks an anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The most famous speech in American history was also among the shortest. It was a dedication speech, delivered in 1863, following a prayer, a song, and a two-hour long speech by Edward Everett. Lincoln’s speech took place about four months after the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Civil War divided the nation, the states, and many families in our democracy. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by the president, signed on January first of 1863. Since Lincoln invoked war powers to legislate, the proclamation only applied to ten states. The Thirteenth Amendment, signed in 1865, abolished slavery.
My First Year Experience students visited the National Archives-Atlanta as part of a class project on civil rights. We toured the facility and heard a presentation by my friend, Joel Walker, who highlighted events in the civil rights movement and pointed out the numerous times that African-Americans were given the right to vote. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited the states from preventing male citizens from voting. Following Reconstruction, poll taxes, literacy tests, and white primaries (where the Democratic party in the South held primary elections not open to African-Americans), were used to block African-Americans from voting or running for office. Intimidation and violence were also employed. Skipping ahead, the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which banned poll taxes, became law in 1964. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was ratified. It was signed by President Johnson, a southern Democrat. Today, the means of voter suppression are more subtle but they still exist. Establishing and maintaining civil rights is an ongoing struggle. People push forward, but others push back.
Our struggles today are not as intense as the horrors of the Civil War, but the issues are largely the same. Are all citizens going to be accorded the same rights and protections under the law? Are the people in this country going to all be equal and thereby live and work together or are some people going to be better than others in a divided nation?
On 9/11, the United States became fully aware of an outside threat to democracy. The Twin Towers were attacked by people who hoped to reduce the country and its principles to rubble. On 11/9, many people in this country became aware of an internal threat to our democracy. Trump Tower became the symbol of a new form of verbal terrorism aimed at dividing the nation. Trump’s ambition was not to end civilization, but to upend what had been taken to be civilized. We took things for granted in this country, and now we have to fight to get them back.
Lincoln spoke about the Civil War, an unparalleled event in American history. The words he said are an important reminder about the principles this country are founded on. It is worth reading the Gettysburg Address again while we are mindful that the progress made in civil rights movements is never linear. There are starts and stops; setbacks and surges; and successes and stalemates. Lincoln said:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The soldiers died long ago, but the fight continues and the dream lives on.