Which 272 Words Will the Next Generation Inscribe on the Lincoln Memorial?
There is no hiding the fact that America is hurting, wounded from the murder of a black man by a police officer who violated two sacred oaths: to protect the people and protect the law.
In solidarity with African-American victims of racism, passionate young protesters have flocked to the streets in every corner of the US, demanding change. Then there are the victims of a small number of criminals who, sometimes in an organized fashion, have looted and destroyed businesses, many of which had just reopened their doors from the COVID-19 pandemic.
After Los Angeles’s Beth Israel Synagogue was spray-painted with anti-Israel slogans and the historic St. John’s Church across the street from the White House was set on fire, leaders of the second-largest Jewish community in the United States removed all holy Torah scrolls from sanctuaries – a move last made during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
In the midst of this tumult, a visual was posted on social media depicting a message that had allegedly been spray-painted on the Lincoln Memorial. The message said F*ck law.
Dedicated in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial stands as America’s most powerful symbol of, and monument to, reconciliation. On its south wall is inscribed Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863, and immortalizing “a new birth of freedom” for our divided nation in 272 words.
As it turns out, the memorial was not desecrated although the Photoshopped images posted by extremists went viral.
In a sense, America is at a crossroads. It’s fair to ask: Which words will have more of an impact on America’s future generations: Lincoln’s 272 or the barely literate scrawl of graffiti?
Before younger people decide, they may want to consult Sam Harris, aka Szlamek Rzeznik.
A young Holocaust survivor whose parents were murdered by the Nazis along with 6 million other Jews, he came to the US as an orphan and was adopted by Ellis and Harriet Harris.
In 1951, as a sophomore at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, he and his classmates were challenged to respond to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Here are his 275 words:
America is indeed the best place on earth. Most people born in America may not think of that the same way I do because all the freedoms come to them as natural as breathing. I, being born in Europe and living there through the war, have a different respect for democracy as being practiced in the United States.
Not until about three and a half years ago did I know what democracy was.
Then the day came. I moved to this free country. This was a complete change for me in the way people lived and the language they spoke.
In all the countries I have been, including Poland, my birthplace, Austria or Germany, did the people move so freely and live in such modern countries.
When still on the harbor ship, the Ernie Pyle, I stared at all the million lights which brightened the night. Between the huge buildings and our ship on the water there lay a little island on which rested the Statue of Liberty.
Even not knowing yet what this huge figure was, I stared at it with great interest.
Then I questioned. When I realized what it symbolized, that much more my eyes brightened with freedom and my heart beat like the drums of peace.
Now I have lived in this heaven for three and a half years and still I think of these first visions of real human life which all the people all over the whole world should someday experience.
My heart, I should hope, will never let me forget the sight of liberty my eyes saw on the first night in America.
‘G-d bless America.’
How, then, can young Americans, riven by social, racial and political divisions, discover their generation’s common purpose? They will need to connect with the legacy of Abraham Lincoln at a time when the nation is so profoundly divided, when it seems that everything is being filtered through the prism of race and inequality.
Here is a modest suggestion: Every young American, whatever family income, race, ethnicity or religion, should be asked to give six months of national service. This will take each individual out of his or her comfort zone and give each an opportunity to make an actual change by living out their own call to action.
They will do this, not by cutting and pasting from a Google search, but through boots on the ground. Real life.
Beyond slogans, it will give each youngster a chance to exercise a sorely underused muscle – empathy – and for many present the opportunity of a lifetime: adding their own 272 words to the legacy enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial, and to the values that forged this great nation.