Monday, January 18, 2010

Honoring Dr. King's Dream

So today I was posted at the "triangle" for the first time. The triangle consists of the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Korean Veterans Memorial (the three form the shape of a triangle in case you were confused). I ended up not having any time to prepare for today so I went in blind this morning, not having any specific research or preparation done for these sites. I ended up being posted at Vietnam in the morning and then at Lincoln in the afternoon. When I arrived at Vietnam I met a guy who has been volunteering at the site for more than 17 years. He asked me if I was comfortable doing talks at the memorial and I told him that there was a lot I didn't know so anything he could share with me would be appreciated. That comment resulted in a two and a half hour tour and explanation of all sorts of topics related to the memorial, including the war itself, the story of the memorial and its construction, and personal anecdotes about many of the names on the wall including the name of an air force pilot who was listed as MIA but whose remains were later identified in the tomb of the unknown soldier. So now I know much much more about Vietnam than I did this morning!

I was supposed to be at Vietnam until 2:00 and move up to Lincoln at that point, but at about 12:10 the ranger in charge of operations at the triangle today came to me while I was eating lunch and asked me if I could do the 1:00 MLK presentation at Lincoln. Things had changed and some rangers had to be shifted so there was no one to cover the program at Lincoln. Keep in mind that I have never even worked at Lincoln and had had no time to prepare anything to do a talk about Lincoln and the memorial, much less a special talk about Martin Luther King Jr. Well I of course said yes and suddenly found myself faced with the prospect of trying to put together a program out of my head since I had no resources available and then going to give that program out in front of Lincoln in about half an hour while also finishing lunch.

When I went out to the front steps ten minutes before 1:00 I was greeted with a surprising sight. Typically programs I have been giving have been for audiences ranging from 2-10 people. It was immediately evident that this program was going to be very different. I found myself looking at a crowd of people covering the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spilling into the plaza below. As I walked out I was quickly approached by several people asking if I was going to be doing the one o'clock program and I realized that all of these people were waiting to hear the program that I was about to give. We typically do a short talk about the "I have a dream" speech and play a selection from the speech on the lower plaza of the Lincoln steps each day, but I had come up with an idea that was rather larger than the norm on account of it being the day that it was and once I saw the crowd that was gathered I decided that rather than doing the program on the lower level I would instead do it on the upper landing from the very same location that Dr. King delivered his speech 47 years ago. 

So I embraced the moment and essentially improvised a 15-20 minute talk with no notes to a crowd of more than 500 people gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I began with Jefferson and spoke of the ideals of freedom and equality that he has espoused and how they found voice in the Declaration of Independence. That led me into a discussion of Lincoln and his work to preserve these same values in which I quoted the Gettysburg Address on three different occasions and spoke about him setting events in motion that found greater fruition nearly 80 years later when Marian Anderson performed in concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in spite of a clearly prejudiced refusal of indoor venues due to the color of her skin. That led me to discuss the planned march on Washington in 1941 by A. Phillip Randolph and others that was canceled due to the intervention of FDR who asked them to stop the march and took action to create greater equality in the workplace. This action was son overshadowed by the US entrance into WWII and many young black men enlisted and served in the ranks of the US armed forces, finding equality amidst the horror of war. But upon returning to America these same men found that they would not be treated in the same fashion at home and rising discontent found a voice in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Sit-ins, and other planned action to fight for civil rights. This in turn led to a revival of the planned march on Washington, only this time the march would take place in late summer of 1963 and would be organized by all of the "big six" civil rights organizations and would culminate in a series of ten speeches delivered from the steps on the Lincoln Memorial, an icon to freedom and equality. 

Though each of the first nine speakers at this event were notable figures in the Civil Rights movement, it was the last speaker, a young minister coming from Montgomery, Alabama that was the focal point of the crowd. And true to expectation when he took his place at the podium Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr invoked the bible, Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence, The Gettysburg address, and the song "my country tis of thee" as he spoke to a crowd of more than half a million listeners about his dream of equality and freedom, a dream that his four children would one day be judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. 

After this setup I then told the gathered crowd that I was going to let Dr. King speak for himself and pressed the play button on the stereo to play a recording of Dr. King's speech in its entirety. Things were great for the first 20 seconds and then the audio cut out. It just stopped and I couldn't get it to come back on. So here I was, in front of all of these people and the speech wasn't going to play. I didn't know what to do. And then someone in the crowd produced a transcript of the speech, which I found in my hands and I suddenly knew exactly what I had to do. So I turned back to the crowd, apologized for the failure of technology, and declared that though I was certainly not Dr. King, I was going to do the best I could to capture the essence of his character as I read the words he spoke from that very spot on August 28, 1963. And I proceeded to deliver the speech in its entirely to a crowd of 500+ from the very spot that Dr. King had once uttered the very same words. 

It was one of the most powerful and moving experiences of my entire life. As I came to the closing words of the speech in which Dr. King quotes the old hymn declaring, "free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I am free at last" I was met with a roar of applause and nearly brought to tears as I realized that I had unwittingly just participated in something that transcended my position as a park guide in Washington DC, something that reflected the very core of who we have been created to be, of the better angels of our nature as Lincoln might have said. 

I spent the next twenty minutes talking to the crowd and then realized I was the only ranger on site which meant that I was responsible for the 2:00 talk about Lincoln, which I proceeded to also do on the fly, giving a 25 minute talk on Lincoln and the memorial to a crowd of more than fifty who followed me around inside the chamber. I repeated this talk at 4:00 as well. Quite the first day a the site!

After getting off the work two other rangers and I decided to walk to the Kennedy Center in order to attempt to attend a special concert by India Arie in celebration of Dr. King. We were actually not able to get inside the main auditorium, but were able to watch the event via video feed on a large screen in the lobby, and thus still participate to some degree. The reason we were unable to get inside is that when we were nearing the building just before six we were stopped outside so that President Obama could enter the building for a special surprise appearance and speech. So I got to listen to his speech while watching him on video in the room next door. Since we were outside the main auditorium we were among the first people to exit the building following the event and made it outside just before they temporarily shut the building down so that the presidential motorcade could exit the Kennedy Center and return the president to the White House. So I ended up standing on the sidewalk directly in front of the presidential motorcade as Obama and company passed in front of me. I was still in full uniform, which is significant because there are certain situations in which any unformed Park Ranger must stand at full attention and hold a full salute. These situations do not occur in most parks, but in Washington DC things are a little different. Once such situation is when the president of the United States is passing. So I stood at full and proper salute, in uniform, as President Obama passed in front of me. 

It was a day to remember.

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