Continental US / D.C.

Minor Surgery for our National Monuments

New York Times photo by Christopher Gregory

New York Times photo by Christopher Gregory

In the world this week, a couple of Washington, DC’s famous monuments received a little surgery. First on July 26, the Lincoln Memorial was splattered with green paint. Since then it has been closed to the public as teams of preservationists, national parks employees and cleaners work on carefully removing the stain. Now, the King Memorial is receiving a little touch up. One of the many King quotes that surround the statue was apparently taken out of context by the architect according to critics (including Maya Angelou). Starting Monday, a team has been working to remove the quotation in time for the 50th anniversary for the March on Washington.

The quote at the memorial read, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” a slightly different meaning from the original quote: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

After seeing these towering monuments for the first time myself a couple of weeks ago, it’s a little strange to think of them behind scaffolding again. Although the King Memorial is only a few years old, the Lincoln Memorial was opened in 1922 and the last time it was vandalized was in 1962, one hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Since then, it has been continuously open to the public. And for natives of DC, looking at the monument from behind yellow tape feels strange–this reporter from ABC 7 says he cannot remember a time the memorial was closed.

Walking among the monuments under the soft glow of the moon and perfectly positioned fluorescent lighting, one can’t help but feel patriotic. Almost as if we are in the presence of some of our favorite American heroes. Lincoln sits poised ready to stand and take action–to strike down injustice and inequality again. The words above his head remind us that he will be in the memory of Americans for his actions forever (they say you think about Abraham Lincoln at least twice a day and that’s saying something in a world of continuous information and instant gratification). And King looks out over the Tidal Basin, arms crossed in determination and eyes set directly ahead. It gave me chills to read the quotes carved into the marble and feel, for a moment, as if I were in the presence of these great men.

The alteration and cleaning of the monuments reminds us that even great things need fixing sometimes and encourages us to see the monuments anew when they are opened to the public once again. Until then, we can take the time to notice the little ripples in our society today that they began years ago: to look back at how far we’ve come.

On the side of the monument a few weeks ago, the quote read "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

On the side of the monument a few weeks ago, the quote read “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

A pre-vandalism Lincoln Memorial.

A pre-vandalism Lincoln Memorial.

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