Remarks by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar Rededicating the Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
It is an honor to be here today as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, and to share the responsibility of protecting the places and stories that fuel the American spirit – from Gettysburg and Yosemite to these hallowed grounds.
Hats off to the National Park Service, who are the keepers of the Lincoln Memorial. Let’s give Acting Deputy Director of the Park Service Ernie Quintana, Regional Director Peggy O’Dell, and Park Police Chief Sal Lauro - and all the park rangers and park police who are here today - a round of applause for their service.
For eighty-seven years, Americans have come here to read our nation’s story of freedom and union in the etchings of this temple. Schoolchildren come here to learn. Veterans come here to remember. And in difficult times, we all come here to draw hope from President Lincoln’s lesson that no matter the challenge, America can remake itself, rebuild, and renew.
For this is a memorial to Abraham Lincoln’s life, but it is also an enduring symbol of the work that remains unfinished in America.
In the peaceful recesses under these columns, we remember the bloodiest war in our history. We remember slavery and the millions of Americans who died in its shackles. We remember a President whose courage saved a union and whose words gave us new purpose: that America is, above all, “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
It is fitting that so much of our nation’s struggle to fulfill the promise of equality has unfolded here, in the shadow of Lincoln’s statue.
Here, on an Easter Sunday seventy years ago, after being told she could not perform in Constitution Hall because of her race, Marian Anderson delivered a triumphant concert to a crowd of seventy-five thousand, opening American hearts to the injustices of segregation.
And here in 1963, in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. called on Americans to summon what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” to finally finish the work of the Emancipation Proclamation a century before, and to free all peoples from the “chains of discrimination.”
Now that dream, and those words, have joined the legacy of this place.
Here, today, in the story of Lincoln, and in the story of this memorial, we are reminded of the force of memory in shaping our nation’s destiny.
Lincoln well understood that force.
It is why Lincoln, in his First Inaugural, prayed that the “mystic chords of memory” would bind the splintering union as it crashed toward civil war.
It is why, two years later, Lincoln went to Gettysburg. There, his tribute to the fallen gave a new birth to freedom, and helped build a new nation from the wreckage of the old.
The power of memory is also why millions of visitors come here each year. Day after day, the words on these walls shape our nation and our understanding of who we are as a people.
As we visit sacred places like the Lincoln Memorial, we are vividly reminded of what is at stake. We know that the power of memory carries great responsibilities. For as we write our histories and tell our stories, we must also resolve not to forget the painful parts of our past.
That’s what happened after the Civil War. In the decades after the fighting stopped, the story of the struggle of emancipation and of equal rights slipped away as our nation put off the promises written in ink in our constitution and written in blood in the Civil War. Our nation remembered the noble battles, but too often forgot the brutality of slavery that lay at its center. We remembered human heroism, but postponed carrying forward in peace what was won in war.
Our imperfect memory of the Civil War, and of Lincoln’s legacy of equality, lasted more than a century. Even when President Warren Harding dedicated this Memorial in 1922, blacks and whites sat separately. Imagine that: the event honoring the man who abolished slavery was largely segregated.
For Lincoln, our nation was a grand work in progress. So too, is our memory, our history, and our understanding of who we are.
That is why protecting the sites and stories of America’s heritage is so important. From the cultures and traditions of America’s first peoples to the writings that launched the experiment in government “of the people, by the people, and for the people;” from the Spanish churches of my native San Luis Valley to the Japanese internment camps of World War II; from the birthplace of jazz to the resting place of Cesar Chavez: we must serve as stewards of our heritage so that our story can become more complete, our narratives more inclusive, and our memory more whole.
That is why I am so proud of the work of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and our other agencies that share a responsibility in protecting America’s heritage.
The National Park Service alone oversees nearly 400 national parks, more than 2,400 national historic landmarks, more than 26,000 historic structures, more than 67,000 archaeological sites, and more than 120 million historic objects in their museum collections.
In addition to all that, the Park Service has been working with partners like the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and the National Archives to interview the people who witnessed and shaped our history, from Pearl Harbor to the Civil Rights movement. Thanks to these continuing oral history efforts, the voices of our past will be preserved forever.
I am also very proud of the work we are doing here on the Mall. From where we stand today, we may soon see two new museums: the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Latino. We hope they will soon rise among the giants of memorials and museums along this National Mall. They are milestones of America’s progress that will enrich our nation’s history and inspire future generations in ways we can’t yet imagine.
So today, two hundred years after his birth, Lincoln’s legacy is alive and growing here at his Memorial. And while we may honor his memory with songs and speeches, the true measure of our devotion to Lincoln – and the greatest honor we can bestow – is in our commitment to what he called “the unfinished work” that those before us “have so nobly carried on.”
As we rededicate these hallowed grounds, fulfilling this promise must be our charge.
Nobody knows this better than the President of the United States, Barack Obama. It is on his behalf, and with great honor, that I accept once more on behalf of the Government this temple to freedom and union.
May the Lincoln Memorial always stand as a beacon for justice and equality for all.
May it inspire every child who climbs these steps and reads the inscriptions on its walls.
And may it give us strength – in these trying times - to lay a new foundation for prosperity and security in America.
God bless President Abraham Lincoln. And God Bless America.
Statement of Kenneth L. Salazar Secretary, Department of the Interior Hearing on Energy and Climate Legislation Committee on Environment and Public Works