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Earlier this year, President Trump announced he planned to deliver an address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this Fourth of July. The move marks a break in the nonpartisan tradition of watching fireworks on the Mall, affectionately known as the “front lawn of the nation.”
But there is a long history of political demonstrations, major speeches and concerts, and presidential addresses at both the Lincoln Memorial and the Mall. We explore some of that history, including controversial performances from Marian Anderson and the Beach Boys and a Fourth of July disrupted by tear gas.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we learn about the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's just opened Hall of Fossils, which features a newly restored T-Rex skeleton plus a focus on what the Earth's past climate shifts might mean for our own future.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first, earlier this year President Trump announced plans to deliver a Fourth of July speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial meaning both heightened security for the annual Independence Day celebration at the Mall as well as moving the fireworks from the Washington Monument location where they have been for decades. Joining me in studio is Robert McCartney. He's Senior Regional Correspondent with The Washington Post. Robert, good to see you.
ROBERT MCCARTNEYGood morning, Kojo, or good afternoon I guess.
NNAMDIGood afternoon. Also with us is Carolyn Crouch, Founder of Washington Walks. Carolyn Crouch, thank you for joining us.
CAROLYN CROUCHThank you.
NNAMDIRobert, what do we know about both the Trump Administration and the District of Columbia's plans for the Fourth of July celebration on the Mall now that Trump plans to speak?
MCCARTNEYWell, President Trump is going to do something that hasn't been done in a long time, which is to make the Fourth of July on the Mall a partisan political event. He's going to speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He says it's going to be a patriotic celebration, but I think it's very hard to imagine that it won't be seen as a partisan thing and there will be both enthusiastic supporters and I would expect passionate opponents of the president showing up at what traditionally is a non-political event.
NNAMDIFor people who are not familiar, what is the annual Independence Day celebration on the Mall like and how could the president's presence as well as the security and potential protests that come with it change this celebration?
MCCARTNEYWell, it's one time every year when people I think usually set aside their political differences and go down to enjoy the fireworks, especially, but also to celebrate America, celebrate independence. There's usually a big concert down there beforehand and, you know, hundreds of thousands of people show up on the Mall, many coming hours in advance, many having picnics on the Mall and sitting around waiting for the fireworks. Usually the biggest controversy is whether or not it's going to rain and either postpone the fireworks or get everybody wet beforehand.
NNAMDIWhat about the parade? Will there be any changes to the Fourth of July parade?
MCCARTNEYNot to my knowledge, but I think that we don't -- haven't seen all the plans yet. We haven't seen everything that's come out from what Trump imagines and would like to see happen.
NNAMDICarolyn Crouch, the president plans to speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You organize walking tours of D.C. including one of the memorials at the Mall. What do you see as the symbolic significance of the president choosing the Lincoln Memorial as the site for his Fourth of July speech?
CROUCHWell, he's in good company with other politicians, who have decided that the Lincoln Memorial would be either a good backdrop or even a good viewing platform across the National Mall. He seems to me to want to have the symbolism that's resonate in the Lincoln Memorial about democracy, about freedom, and about unity in the country to be very powerful as he stands there. I can't believe it's going to be lost on him that he will be standing maybe very close to the very place where Civil Rights activists and leader Martin Luther King stood in 1963 to deliver what's become an immortal defining speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
NNAMDIWhen and why was the Lincoln Memorial originally built?
CROUCHIt was an idea to memorialize the president, in the thinking of the people who conceived it, the person who preserved our union, who kept us geographically ultimately together. But the memorial that appeared in 1922 at the Western terminus of the Mall was not the first one. There already had been a memorial to Lincoln, a figure of him that was placed out in front of the District of Columbia Court Building in Judiciary Square. And then later on there was a memorial that included him as a figure with an enslaved person that was placed in Lincoln Park.
CROUCHSo when we get to the 1920s and this commission is formed to have a memorial for Lincoln, the idea is we've got a lot of Civil War memorials already in our open spaces in the city. Maybe it's time that the Civil War had a presence on this new land that we've reclaimed and built that's going to be the National Mall.
NNAMDISee what a few of our listeners have to say about this. Let's start with Elizabeth in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELIZABETHThank you for taking my call. I just have a comment. I grew up in the area of going to the Mall every Fourth of July with a bunch of theater friends very dorky. And we always went to Signers Island and we were always next to a group of bikers. I bet you there were political differences between those two groups, but on that day we were all about the Fourth of July, and it was this wonderful wonderful sense of unity in the country, and that's something we need more of. And I'm terribly worried that the occupant of the White House by making it about him is destroying something that was really beautiful and that we truly need today. That's my comment and thank you for listening.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call Elizabeth. We got an email from Heidi who says, Just last year we sat in the crowd on the lawn at the Capital Fourth and we discussed how nice it was to actually have a way to show our patriotism and celebrate our country without politics. Everyone sat together. No one was political or rude and it was lovely. Leave it to Trump to blow that apart. We won't be going this year, says Heidi. Carolyn Crouch, when was the last time a president spoke in person at the Fourth of July celebration on the Mall.
CROUCHOh my goodness. Robert may -- I'm not aware of one.
MCCARTNEYIt was 1951. It was Harry Truman and he spoke -- it was the 175th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and he spoke on the Mall and it was politicized to some extent, because he basically made it a defense of his policies in what was then the very controversial Korean War. So that was the last time a president actually spoke.
NNAMDIBecause you attended a Fourth of July rally -- you've been going to them since you were a kid, but you attended one that featured not just a videotaped speech from a president, but it also featured tear gas. What happened when you went to the Mall for the 1970s Independence Day celebration?
MCCARTNEYThat's right, 1970. I was in high school. I had been going to the Mall since elementary school for the fireworks and I went there with my family. But that Richard Nixon that year politicized the event. It was the last time to my knowledge that it was politicized. He made it honor America day and basically made it all about supporting his policies in Vietnam. Vietnam controversy was possibly at its peak then. He had recently invaded Cambodia, which led to a lot of demonstrations, also the Kent State shootings, shootings at a University of Mississippi. So it was very controversial.
MCCARTNEYBob Hope was the master of ceremonies. Reverend Billy Graham played a big role in organizing this. And Nixon gave a videotaped presentation, and also, I remember this very clearly, they had a message from the President of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, whom we were supporting, really a military dictator of South Vietnam whom we were supporting. So it was all about Vietnam. It was very politicized and a lot of protestors showed up. Some protestors because they didn't like the fact that Nixon was politicizing it, but a lot of anti-war protesters and they clashed with police and the police used tear gas. And I and the rest of family got tear gassed and had to flee the scene and we missed the fireworks, which we were very annoyed about.
CROUCHOh, my gosh. You know, that wasn't President Nixon's first time down there in association with the wartime. So he appeared in a message, but he went down there in person on May 9, 1970 soon after Kent State. And he had been living in this kind of bunkered White House, which had vehicles and buses surrounding the perimeter to keep it safe. And like in the dead of night he got his chauffer and they kind of went out and he went down to the Lincoln Memorial. And these people, who had been holding a vigil for the people who were killed at Kent State were there. And he made an attempt to kind of sell his idea about the Vietnam War and they were either bleary eyed, because they were trying to sleep or just sort of singularly unimpressed.
CROUCHBut what is so weird about that night is he ends up then going -- he brings his chauffer to the capital. They go look at the house chamber. They go end up having breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel. And he finds he makes his way back to the White House, but talk about unusual approach to getting your idea across.
NNAMDIThat president was known for being idiosyncratic to say the least, but there's another event that -- this one I remember well, Robert, another controversial Independence Day celebration on the Mall during the Reagan Administration featuring the Beach Boys. What happened?
MCCARTNEYOr not featuring the Beach Boys.
NNAMDIWell, I think they eventually showed up, but what happened then and why was --
MCCARTNEYYeah. That's a great story. So the -- in 1983, I believe the head of the Interior Department, which of course is responsible for the park police and the park service and therefore responsible for the Mall and therefore responsible for a lot of the Fourth of July celebrations on the Mall. The head of the Interior Department was James Watt. He was a very conservative right winged. He was mainly controversial, because of his policies basically on the environment. He was very much criticized by environmentalists for not defending the environment.
MCCARTNEYBut in this case his conservative credentials lead him to declare with great pride that he was not going to let the Beach Boys perform at the Fourth of July celebration, because it was rock and roll and they were undesirable elements. This, however, backfired, because it turned out that President Reagan liked the Beach Boys. I mean, he was from California.
CROUCHI know. Right.
MCCARTNEYAnd Nancy Reagan in particular liked the Beach Boys. So he had to apologize and I don't think they performed that year, but they did perform the following year.
MCCARTNEYSo the Beach Boys got their day in the sun on the Fourth of July. And when they came up Mike Love, one of the Beach Boys said, "Welcome all you undesirable elements."
NNAMDIYes. That's the Beach Boys in the mind of Secretary Watt were just a wild partying group of people, who shouldn't be allowed in Washington when at that point most of the country considered the Beach Boys the mildest form of rock and roll.
CROUCHI was going to say.
MCCARTNEYAbsolutely bland and tame and wholesome, they were wholesome.
NNAMDIExactly right. Here's Doug in Silver Spring, Maryland. Doug, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGHello. Can you hear me?
DOUGOkay. Well, your Washington Post reporter already eluded to the fact that -- expect opponents will be coming to the speech as well. And I just wanted to say that's exactly right. We have begun organizing in the Montgomery County area to make sure that this is not going to be a Trump rally with no opposing voices there. I think it's absolutely horrible that the president is taking a holiday that should be devoted to the Declaration of Independence and fun and as both of your guests have said politically neutral and totally politicizing it. And I just wanted to mention that yes, we are in fact already organizing to make sure our presence is shown. Thank you.
MCCARTNEYI read somewhere that the activist group, Code Pink, is trying to get the big Trump baby balloon that you've seen in London. It's gotten a lot of attention in London. They're trying to get that to bring that over here for the Fourth of July celebration. I don't know if they'll succeed, but that's something to look for.
NNAMDIThe Lincoln Memorial has its own history as a side of politically important moments. Many people, of course, know, Carolyn Crouch, that Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. You mentioned that from the monument steps. But the memorial already had a special place in many people's hearts, because of well, Marian Anderson.
CROUCHOh, yes, indeed. That in some ways, I would say, Dr. King's speech in 1963 cemented a resonance for the Lincoln Memorial that already had started in April of 1939 when Contralto Marian Anderson gave an impromptu concert there that was organized by Franklyn Roosevelt Administration officials and NAAC folks here in D.C. She had been giving concerts at Howard University annually. And they got bigger and bigger and bigger. And at that time in D.C. they biggest performing venue was Constitution Hall, which was under the jurisdiction of The Daughters of the American Revolution and they asked if they could please have the concert there. And the DAR was pretty open about saying, "No. We don't want an African American performer here and we do not want an integrated audience."
CROUCHWhat they didn't reckon with was that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a member of the DAR. And when she got wind of this she summarily resigned from the organization and she wrote about this in her daily column. So soon all across the country people were realizing what had happened to Marian Anderson. Then as I mentioned folks here in NAACP, members of the FDR's Administration said, well, we're not going to leave it at that, and they arranged to have a concert occur on Easter morning and she stood on the Lincoln Memorial.
CROUCHIt was broadcast nationwide on the radio, many many iconic photographs from that, many taken from our own Scurlock Studio here in D.C. Seventy-five thousand people came out, stood by the memorial, stood along the reflecting pool. She opens her concert by singing "My Country Tis of Thee" and she closes it by singing the spiritual "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen."
CROUCHShe herself did not talk a great deal about what she thought that moment meant for D.C. and for America, but she didn't need to because from that point on people began to associate the Lincoln Memorial with a place where the country, the citizenry can come and talk about and actually stand and represent the best ideals of our democracy and our freedom and everything that people believe that President Lincoln ultimately stood for.
NNAMDIAnd, Robert, the rest of the Mall has been called the front lawn of the U.S. It's also one of the more popular places in the country to protest. First, why is that?
MCCARTNEYI will answer that question, but first I want to mention that my grandmother in Michigan, a lifelong republican resigned from the DAR, Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 over the Marian Anderson issue. The Mall is the front lawn of the United States as you say. It's the place where people come to demonstrate to exercise their first amendment rights to gather peacefully and petition the government for a redress of grievances. And there have been demonstrations for many many decades there of both conservatives and liberals.
MCCARTNEYI went to a lot of anti-war demonstrations on the Mall in the late 60s and early 1970s. There's an annual rally against abortion on the anniversary of Roe Vs. Wade, which attracts 100,000 people pretty regularly each year. We've had the Million Man March happened on the Mall, and the one, I guess, 10 years later. It's the place where people gather to demonstrate and protest and ask for change.
NNAMDIAnd the opponents of President Trump this year will presumably be saying, get off my lawn. Now onto Steve in Silver Spring, Maryland. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi. I just want to say that it's a travesty that Trump wants to turn something that's uniquely American into something that's all about him, and I'm wondering is there anything that anyone can do to protest this and make sure that it doesn't happen.
NNAMDIWell, if you heard our earlier caller they are already organizations organizing to protest this, Robert McCartney?
MCCARTNEYI don't think it's going to be possible to stop it, I mean, he's the president. A lot of the planning is handled by the Interior Department through the park police and the park service. I mean, it's conceivable that the District government could be an obstacle in some ways. I have not seen any signs that they want a fight over this, although I would imagine there will be some friction. The District government, of course, is led by liberal democrats.
NNAMDIHere's Chris in Washington D.C. speaking of Washingtonians. Chris, you're turn.
CHRISThank you, Kojo. I've enjoyed your show for many years. So many of your callers have already stolen my thunder, but I just want to say that my response to this political rally is my wife and I are going to go to rural Maine and turn off our phones and ignore the whole thing.
NNAMDITrying to get as far away as possible, huh?
CHRISAnd it's interesting that someone mentioned James Watt. I mean, it seems like we had 12 James Watts now. This is sort of -- something I couldn't have imagined just a few years ago. So anyway thank you for your show and I'll hang up and I agree with all of your callers thus far.
NNAMDIJoel emails, "what about moving the fireworks? Why move them to a place that is far from public transportation, difficult to see from downtown viewing locations including the White House? It doesn't make any sense." Jane Therabi tweets, "We usually watch the fireworks from the Arlington Long Branch Park or the Air Force Memorial. If the fireworks are moved to Haynes Point will it mess up the view from across the river?"
MCCARTNEYI'm afraid I'm not sure. I would think that they are being moved, but they're not being moved a big distance. So I think that, you know, you can see it from, you know, miles away. I mean, you can see them from the grounds of the National Cathedral. You can see them from across the river. There's a lot of places to see the fireworks. So I would guess they will still be visible, but maybe not as close to you as you're used to seeing or in some cases, depending on where you are closer.
NNAMDIRobert McCartney is the Senior Regional Correspondent for The Washington Post. Robert, always a pleasure.
NNAMDICarolyn Crouch is the Founder of Washington Walks. Carolyn Crouch, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back we'll learn about the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's just opened Hall of Fossils. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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