Right on Public Remembrance


Who has the right to public remembrance? Which group has the right to legalize its existence in public space? The appropriation of public space, as well as the rights of who can and who cannot be represented in it, are increasingly the topic of political debates, and even open conflicts. Let’s just recall the conflict in Charlottesville or Skopje, to name just the most famous. This issue has become especially important when it comes to the representative public space of the capitals of the nations. In that context, the issue of appropriation of public space and the narrative that is (not) located on it, goes beyond the framework of the city itself and touches on the nation as a whole and its notion of itself and its identity.


The American nation was built and developed by spreading its ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights both within itself and to the outside world. The young nation immortalized its greatness and its position as a new world player in its new capital, embodying all its ideals and values ​​in physical form. Washington D.C., named after the first president of the United States, inherits a unique representative public entity known as the National Mall. This colossal gallery of the most important national institutions, heroes, museums and ideas forms the heart of the city, but symbolically it is the heart of this nation and the “second home of every American[1]. And it is one of the most successful projects of political symbolism embodied in the space and urban design that exists in the world to this day. According to the National Park Service, this space aims to be “a source of national pride and symbolizes our cherished values ​​and ideals, and they are celebrated in individuals and events that symbolize our cherished values ​​and ideals: democracy, freedom, justice, compassion, equality, unity, diversity, service, healing, citizenship, civil rights, liberty, service, dedication, courage, sacrifice, innovation, unity, and diversity, as well as struggles of the international community for freedom and democracy[2].


Such a broad and inclusive description of the most representative public space in the capital of the United States would lead us to think that it represents all communities and all segments of its society. However, this is not exactly the case. Of the 27 sculptures and memorials located at the National Mall and the space that directly belongs to it (such as the axis that leads to the White House and the axis that leads to Tidal Basin), almost all are dedicated to white heroes and personalities. In addition to monuments dedicated to war veterans or ideas (such as a statue of peace), most of the memorials are dedicated to presidents, founders of the American nation, and white scientists, artists, and heroes. The lack of other communities, for which American society is known, as the world’s melting pot, is noticeable. In that glistening “whiteness” of the central public space, it is legitimate to ask the question where the African-American community is in the American national identity, how much its narrative is accepted and – why it is not.


African Americans are the Founders of the United States


Black peoples came to America with whites. More precisely, they were brought, on ships, on the overseas prisons where they were put after being kidnapped from the African coast. Without them and their slave labor, whites would not be able to survive in the harsh climate of North America and would not be able to conquer it. At least not as fast as they did and as they managed to almost wipe out the indigenous population of the Turtle Island[3]. Blacks have always been the mainstay of the survival and progress of whites in the so-called New World.


Slave ship illustration
An illustration shows slaves being shackled on board a slave ship.
Full Credit: Rischgitz/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Despite the inhumane living conditions, the destruction of traditions, culture and families, African Americans survived in America and by 1775 already made up over 20% of the population of the American colonies. Only the English had a higher percentage in the population. Blacks enabled all the most important processes for the emergence of the modern American nation – from labor in the cotton fields, which was initially the most precious American product, through participation in the wars for independence. All this time, they have been used and their lives have not been spared to realize the great American dreams and values. Only those dreams continued to pass them by, and they also lay down and woke up in nightmares of disenfranchisement.


It was not until the Civil War and the Emaciation Proclamation that President Lincoln abolished slavery in the United States in 1863. Symbolically, at least. Although the Union won, and the African Americans themselves made many sacrifices for that victory, their happiness did not last long. After the initial optimism of the Age of Reconstruction, the American South introduced discriminatory and segregation laws that limited every aspect of the life of the black community and that was humiliating to the core. Lynching, economic constraints, and social oppression forced many blacks to flee to the north and west of the United States, which is remembered as the Great Migration.


American Dream in Color


In the process, many cities in the rich and industrialized North gained a significant African-American community. This encouraged the development of African-American culture, which decisively influenced all aspects of American culture and art (film, music, literature…). But despite all that, their life remained the life of second-class citizens, guests in their own nation. The North did not welcome them with open arms either. If there was no lynching (although there was aggression!), the whites applied another strategy of segregation here – they moved to the suburbs – so called white flight. And so America became known for its “chocolate cities and vanilla partitions,” as a euphemistic verse of a song depicting the ingrained racism of the United States[4]. One such “chocolate city” is the capital of the United States. Due to the majority of the African-American population, Washington DC is considered the most important and largest “black city” in America.


However, even in a city that had a black majority, only a white man was celebrated. Black hands built institutions and magnificent memorials in the style of Greek and Roman mausoleums, but for those hands, there was no place at the National Mall. Until one day, exactly 100 years after the official abolition of slavery, a young priest from the American South did not take thousands of his brothers and sisters to the March for Jobs and Freedom. The largest gathering of the African-American community in the 20th century took place at the National Mall, between the Washington Obelisk and the Lincoln Memorial, the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Opposing oppression, neglect and discrimination, Martin Luther King Jr. told his dream. A dream of a different America, a dream that will be shared by all and that will make many happy. A dream that inspired optimism in millions and spread around the world and started waves and waves of struggle for human rights and freedoms. On those steps, a new father of the American nation was born, the creator of the new American dream. Crowned with his struggle and the Nobel Peace Prize, this young priest will become the victim of the assassination in 1968 and his death will be a great shock and loss for the whole world.


March on Washington on August 28, 1963
March on Washington on August 28, 1963


Deserved Place in the American National Pantheon


The National Mall became the habitus of his spirit, but his place in the American pantheon was long lacking. The place for the first African-American in that physical embodiment of American collective memory and identity had to wait for almost 50 years. It also had to wait for the election of the first African-American president of the United States – Barack Obama. Namely, only in 2011, a little south of the place where the March for Jobs and Freedom was held, a memorial complex to Martin Luther King Jr. was built. Of the 27 monuments located at and near the National Mall, this is the first and only one dedicated to an African-American figure. The memorial complex is a quote from his sermons on the position of his community and his expression of hope for a better tomorrow – a rock of hope through the mountains of despair. Visitors have to pass between two huge stones on which we write 14 quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. and which represent those mountains of despair. When you pass this stone passage, you come across a sculpture made of light pink granite – the Rock of Hope. The head and body of Luther King Jr. emerge from it and from there he oversees Tidal Basin and the cherry blossom park, as a symbol of the arrival of spring and better times. On it is carved a sentence from the speech “I have a dream” which represent the idea of ​​the whole monument complex – “From the mountain of despair, the stone of hope”.


Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial


The Struggle is Not Over


The first incarnation of an African-American at the National Mall took place in 1984. As part of the Memorial to Veterans of the Vietnam War, a statue of Three Soldiers was erected, among which one of them has the physical characteristics of an African-American. It was a tribute to the thousands and thousands of blacks who left their bones in distant Vietnam for the interests of the American elite. With that in mind, it was a very expensively paid monument. The first museum dedicated to the African-American community at the National Mall opened in 2016, also during President Obama’s term. The museum is located in a newly built building and is called the Museum of African American Culture and History.


Black Lives Matter sign on streets of Washington DC by Maxar Technologies
Black Lives Matter sign on streets of Washington DC by Maxar Technologies


But the struggle is not over yet. Far from it! In addition to the symbolic (and disproportionate) place that the black community received at the National Mall, in real life their place is even smaller and even more endangered. We are currently witnessing this through the all-American movement Black Lives Matter, which fights against police repression of the black population, but also for a more dignified life for the whole of America without racism.


This article was created within the research project Dreamt Capital Cities.


All copyrights are reserved. It is allowed to publish the article with citing the name of the author and the source.


[1]Washington, D.C. is more than the seat of government and residence of nearly one million citizens. It is a second home to every American, and the symbol of this nation to the world.” (Source: House Congressional Record October 14, 1972, p. 36439 related to 1972 Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation Act, Public Law 92-578.)

[2] Foundation Statement for the National Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Park

[3] Natives name for North America

[4] Cholocate City (album), Parliament, 1975