November 19, 2018
Dedication Day Address by Janet Morgan Riggs
My sincere thanks to Steve Herr and Wendy Allen and the Lincoln Fellowship for inviting me to speak, on this 80th anniversary year of this ceremony and on the 155th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.
I am certain that anyone who is asked to speak here in this setting on this important date feels honored. I have to say that along with feeling deeply honored, I feel profoundly humbled to have this opportunity. I’ve been on this podium every year since 2008 to represent Gettysburg College, which is a proud partner in this annual program. And every year—no matter how cold or windy the weather— I’ve always been warmed and inspired by our keynote speakers. Today I will do my best to live up to that legacy and that tradition.
My theme today is that Abraham Lincoln’s address is a timeless and personal call to each one of us, a call truly for the people.
As I considered my comments for today, I returned to an important book that I’d read excerpts from before, but thought I should read again: The Gettysburg Gospel, written by Gettysburg College Emeritus Professor, Founder of our Civil War Institute, noted Lincoln Scholar, and my personal friend—Gabor Boritt. I commend this book to all of you, as it provides an illuminating perspective on the context for the Gettysburg Address and its reception.
The Gettysburg Gospel opens with a vivid description of Gettysburg in the aftermath of the battle in July of 1863. Imagine it…..after 3 days of battle, 10,000 killed—most of those bodies lying in the July heat waiting for burial. Thousands of dead horses broiling in the sun. 21,000 wounded, many left in buildings in town, including Pennsylvania Hall on the Gettysburg College campus.
In his book, Gabor quotes a volunteer nurse, Eliza Farnham…..“The whole town…is one vast hospital……Dead and dying, and wounded…torn to pieces in every way….” Gabor writes, “Moans, shrieks, weeping, and prayer fill the houses, the barns, the tents, the fields and woods….The land itself seems to wail. Nothing but suffering. Sights, sounds, smells unbearable. Horror…..Hell on earth.”
The soldiers who never left Gettysburg were husbands and fathers and brothers— as were those who stayed on, struggling for their lives. And the doctors and nurses and volunteers who arrived to this—and the citizens of the Gettysburg community—somehow had to cope with and respond to the overwhelming aftermath of this brutal fight. Gabor brings that horror to life and personalizes it.
In the wake of this carnage, a Gettysburg College alumnus, David Wills, was asked by Pennsylvania’s governor, Andrew Curtin, to procure land for a cemetery and to plan its dedication—so that those who had fallen could be properly buried. David Wills invited President Abraham Lincoln to the dedication ceremony, not as the keynote speaker, but to offer a few appropriate remarks. And Abraham Lincoln agreed.
The weight of the war and of what happened at Gettysburg had to have hung heavily on Lincoln. In the face of this horror—so much loss and so much suffering—how does one rally a nation? What does one say to offer comfort to the widows, to the sons and daughters, and to the mothers and fathers of those who died? Lincoln could identify too well with those parents, having just lost his own son the year before.
There is no doubt that the speech Lincoln delivered was from the heart. It revealed his profound respect for those who lost their lives, and his conviction that the Union must be saved, that democracy must prevail, that a new birth of freedom was worth fighting for, and that a government of, by and for the people must succeed.
Perhaps the most endearing line of Lincoln’s address is this one: The world will little note nor long remember what we say here….” The humility of that line moves me every time I hear it. It’s true that it took some time for Lincoln’s words to really begin to resonate throughout the nation‐‐‐but resonate they did. And here we are 155 years later, gathered to honor those words, a personal message delivered to the citizens of our nation—a speech that is known not just here in the United States, but around the world, memorized by many….one of the greatest speeches ever known.
In addition to The Gettysburg Gospel, there was another book that was on my mind as I thought about my comments for today. This was a book that was selected as our First Year Read at Gettysburg College—a book that our entire incoming class of students was asked to read and discuss. The book is called Just Mercy. It was written by Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who has dedicated his career to freeing those who have been unjustly convicted by our criminal justice system, largely as a result of racial discrimination.
What Bryan Stevenson describes is not ancient history. The cases that he includes in his book have occurred here in our country—recently—and continue to occur. I had read about this kind of injustice before, but it had seemed abstract to me. However, in his book Bryan Stevenson personalizes the statistics.
In September, Anthony Ray Hinton came to the Gettysburg College campus to speak to our first‐year class and to stimulate discussion related to this particular issue. Mr. Hinton served 30 years…30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. He was in jail from age 29 to 59—a black man put away for a crime that he had nothing to do with. And through the efforts of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, he was freed just three years ago.
Anthony Ray Hinton shared his story with grace, but also with tears, understandably. The gross injustice he experienced became acutely personal for all of us in the audience. It was a stark reminder of the unfinished work still before our nation.
There’s something else that’s been on my mind as I prepared my remarks for today. Undoubtedly, we have all heard about ICE raids occurring in our country, about children being separated from their parents. Like many things in the media today, these events can feel distant—certainly far from our small town of Gettysburg.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about an event that did occur here recently, right in our community. Last spring, we had an ICE raid at a local Gettysburg restaurant. And while we can all recognize the complexity of this particular national issue, the result was that families were ripped apart—people whom many of us know, whose children go to school with our children. We have known that many in our community have been living in fear for quite some time—in fear of being stopped on their way to work, of being detained or deported. But with this raid, all that we had been reading about in the news from other communities suddenly hit our local news and became more personal.
This morning, we are joined by a group of people whose journeys vary, but which brought them all to the United States. A little later in our ceremony, we will listen to these individuals—immigrants to our nation—take their oath of citizenship. And we will warmly welcome them as fellow Americans.
This is indeed a joyful moment, one that inspires us all. It symbolizes what our country has been built on. Historically we, as a nation, have taken great pride in offering a safe harbor and a shot at the “American dream” to those who have been persecuted, or whose lives are threatened, or who are looking for a brighter future for their children. That pride stands in stark contrast to the incendiary rhetoric we hear in our country today about immigration.
Again, we can all acknowledge that these issues of immigration are complicated. But we also must remember that they affect real people—mother and fathers, sons and daughters, wives and husbands.
As I think about Lincoln’s charge to us, I also think about the everyday racial bias and profiling that so many in this country experience. The black sisters waiting for AAA outside of an apartment complex who are told they don’t belong. Two black men arrested for trespassing in Starbucks after quietly waiting there to meet a friend. White people crossing the street to the other side when they see a person of color coming towards them. I also think about the inequality of opportunities for our nation’s youth as a function of their color or socioeconomic status. These everyday slights and injustices in our nation are not abstract. They affect real people. They are personal.
And now I’ll move to the acutely personal and talk about my family. A couple of summers ago, I was on vacation at the NJ shore. One evening I was out taking a walk with my daughter and her then boyfriend (who is now her fiancé). As we were walking, he said something about needing to take his hands out of his pockets. I naively asked him what he meant by that. And he said to me, “As a black man I know better than to walk through this neighborhood with my hands in my pockets. I know that my hands need to be visible.” I was stunned by his matter‐of‐fact remark, which provided me with a personal introduction to racial profiling.
I don’t know if my daughter and her future husband will have children—but if they do—will they have to give my grandson the talk about how to respond if the police pull him over—a talk I never felt compelled to give to my own sons? Will my daughter and son‐in‐law have to instruct him to keep his hands visible at all times, to do exactly what the police officer tells him to do, even if it seems uncalled for—and above all, not to reach for anything? As a white person, I have had the privilege of never having to think about these things.
As I ponder racial discrimination in our criminal justice system, the closing of borders and the rending of families, the everyday micro‐aggressions, the sometimes blatant—and sometimes far less obvious, but no less insidious— discrimination that so many in this country are subject to, I am struck by the relevance of the words Lincoln spoke right here in Gettysburg 155 years ago: his reminder of our nation’s founding proposition that all are created equal, his call to all of us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us.
Lincoln’s brief and humble speech resonates today because there is so much work still to be done to achieve those goals of equality. His address calls every one of us to continue to strive towards those goals. This is about changing unjust practices and policies, yes. But it’s also about the way we interact with each other on a daily basis. It’s about becoming more aware of our biases and striving to overcome them. Lincoln’s words remind us that our democracy is of, by, and for the people. It’s ours to improve. It’s ours to fix.
And I do have great hope. The reason for my hope rests with what I see on my own college campus every day, and what I am sure many other college presidents observe as well: our youth, our future leaders. This generation of students has taken a beating in the press. They’ve been criticized for being too sensitive, for being politically correct, for lacking resilience, for being as delicate as snowflakes.
My view is different than that. I see so many in this generation of students whose compassion for others is strong; who speak out against discrimination, particularly with regard to race and gender; who care deeply about human rights; and who are far more activist than students were in my college days. I admire them for their spirit, for their determination, and for their idealism. They take injustice personally, and they speak out about it.
One of the most important responsibilities we have as educators—and as citizens—is to help these young people develop the ability to talk to one another, to rise above the name‐calling, to debate issues with reason and with facts in hand, to try to see and understand the perspectives of others, to empathize, to learn from one another. I often think they are far ahead of many of us in this regard, in their ability to discuss complex issues with civility. And this—this gives me great hope for our future. This generation will lead us.
I want to conclude today with an excerpt from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. His words are especially appropriate at a time in our nation’s history in which we are experiencing such divisiveness, such hostility and angry rhetoric—a time when various groups within our nation continue to have to fight for respect and dignity and equality, a time when some of our basic founding principles seem to have been called into question.
In President Lincoln’s inaugural address, he said to those gathered before him….
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
It is time for all of us to consider Lincoln’s call to our nation for equality—his call for a new birth of freedom—to be a personal call. For the unfinished work still before our nation is most certainly personal. And it must be carried out by each one of us, every day.
Let us all be led by those better angels.