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February 13, 2024

A Joinder of Inspiration

By: Jessica Ballard-Barnett

Unfortunately, it is often the case that AJEI participants miss Sunday programming due to their travel schedules.  However, I find Sunday sessions to be hidden gems.  I was not disappointed with the Sunday morning panel, entitled “A Joinder of Inspiration and Greatness is Civil Rights Legislation: The Words of Lincoln and King on the Anniversaries of the Gettysburg Address and ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech.”  

Before the panel, Wayne Motts of the Gettysburg Foundation spoke about that organization’s preservation efforts.  The Gettysburg Foundation manages the exhibits, tours, and events at the Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site.  The Foundation is currently seeking to restore some of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the very site where President Lincoln gave his iconic speech.  The Cemetery has fallen into disrepair over time and the Foundation would like to complete revitalization projects, including replacing the fence that surrounds the area, to further preserve history.  As is tradition at AJEI, an infantry boot was available throughout the conference to collect donations for a chosen organization, this year the Gettysburg Foundation.  AJEI attendees generously donated over $1,000 to support the Foundation’s efforts.

This year marks the anniversaries of two important historical speeches - President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.  At AJEI, the Sunday morning participants were educated about the purposeful parallels between the two speeches and the subsequent legislation stemming therefrom.  The panelists included two premier scholars on each speech and orator.

The first panelist, Professor Bobby J. Donaldson, leads the Center for Civil Rights History and Research of the University of South Carolina.  The second panelist, the Honorable Frank Williams, is the former Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, an esteemed President Lincoln scholar and author, and a veteran of the Vietnam War.  Judge Williams is the author of Judging Lincoln and the co-author of The Mary Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America’s Most Controversial First Lady and The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory.”  The panel was moderated by former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan, Jr.  As an amateur historian, the presentation was a treat and an opportunity to learn more about two of the most memorable and impactful speeches of all time.

On November 19, 1863, four months after the carnage of the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln visited Gettysburg and toured the battlefield.  He saw the dead still there and visited those convalescing in the nearby town.  Some report President Lincoln wrote the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address the night before his speech; others believe he wrote most of the speech before arriving and the last page after his arrival.  His words served as the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, now known as the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Almost 100 years later, on August 28, 1963, Dr. King led approximately 250,000 people from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  His speech was many years in the making - he had the idea two years earlier, collaborated with his speech writing team on the idea for over a year, and performed a draft in North Carolina on November 27, 1962.  His words served as a light in the tumultuous Civil Rights Era.

The Gettysburg Address began with the words, “four score and seven years ago,” noting eighty-seven years that had passed since the signing of the United States Constitution.  President Lincoln went on to state the United States was a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  His speech lasted only two minutes, but would inspire countless others, including Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. 

Dr. King echoed the first words of the Gettysburg Address when he began his I Have a Dream speech with “five score years ago” – the number of years which had passed since the Gettysburg Address.  Dr. King noted the intent of the Emancipation Proclamation – to free those who were enslaved, though he argued those effected by President Lincoln’s proclamation were unfortunately not free as intended.  This parallel language was deliberate – one of Dr. King’s speech writers, Clarence Jones, specifically stated he intended to make the speech “like the Gettysburg Address.” He was successful.

Both speeches marked turning points in American history.  The Battle of Gettysburg was a major victory for the Union Army, leading to a new era of Union dominance in the Civil War.  Winning over 110 of the subsequent battles. The March on Washington occurred during a watershed year in the Civil Rights Movement.  In early 1963, the United States Supreme Court decided Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963), a landmark decision holding police violated protesters’ First Amendment rights when they arrested the protesters as part of a peaceful demonstration.  Also in 1963, a federal court overturned the mandate of Alabama Governor George Wallace, who refused to allow four black children to attend four Huntsville elementary schools.  The admission of those students resulted in the first integrated primary or secondary school in Alabama.

Professor Donaldson noted Dr. King’s intentional selection of the location for his “I Have a Dream” speech.  The original route of the March on Washington was to begin at the Washington Monument and end at the Capitol.  Instead, the March on Washington ended at the Lincoln Memorial to further emphasize the relationship between the speeches.

Both President Lincoln and Dr. King made their speeches with a political angle as well.  President Lincoln was running for reelection in 1864 and, since the Confederacy was still a separate entity, the majority of his voters supported his stance.  Although Dr. King did not seek public office, he made it clear to then-President Kennedy, who intended to run for reelection, that support of Dr. King’s endeavor would ensure the black vote would go in President Kennedy’s favor.

Both panelists observed that the results of the two speeches were comparable in that both resulted in legislation they sought to influence.  While it took the end of the Civil War to effectuate the change set forth in the Gettysburg Address - freedom for all as intended in the U.S. Constitution.  The 14th and 15th Amendments attempted to abolish slavery and establish equal rights for all.  Approximately one year after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addressed some of the inequities Dr. King cited in his “I Have a Dream” speech. The speeches also prompted further legislation over the years to attempt to rectify the injustices perpetrated on people of color by those opposed to the ideals of President Lincoln’s goal of equality.

Unfortunately legislation relevant to each speaker’s vision passed after their assassinations.  President Lincoln was killed by a Confederate sympathizer about six months before the two-year anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  Dr. King was able to see some of his dream realized by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but his assassination in 1968 robbed him of further accomplishments in the name of equal rights for African Americans such as the Fair Housing Act.  Despite those tragedies, their words will ring in the halls of American history for years to come.

Jessica Barnett

Indiana Court of Appeals

Jessica Barnett has served as a Judicial Law Clerk for the Indiana Court of Appeals since May 2010.  In addition, she has presented several CLEs on topics related to attorneys’ use of social media, internet law, and judicial security.  Jessica earned her undergraduate degree at Purdue University and her law degree at Indiana University-McKinney School of Law.  She is the chair of the Council of Appellate Staff Attorneys.

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