I have a very special connection with the Lincoln Memorial. If you want to know why, you will have to know my story. I grew up in DC, decided to join the military as a young man and then the Korean War started and I was sent to Korea in 1952 but as we were going over there me and some old friends of mine we were all negroes and the guys would say "wow, man this is really something, we go into war to fight for someone else's freedom and don't have any freedom ourselves back home."
Up with the second infantry division, the division it was the one that had the most casualties of the war itself and I do have two purple hearts from that part of the war, but as the war went on I was wounded and was sent to Japan and while i was there the Japanese people treated me just like I was supposed to be: a human being.
Tour duty was up in Korea and we were sent back to America when we docked a friend of mine as we walked off the ship he said "It's good to be back in America." All of us were feeling great to be back home again that morning they picked us up put us on the buses and took us up to Richmond, California. It's early in the morning I guess about 9:30 maybe 10 o'clock we walked in and guys are sitting around eating so we as a bunch we sat down at the table and we waited for the waitress to come. So we were hollering "Waitress, waitress" and the young ladies they just walked around like we wasn't there and that's when a friend of mine said "Whoa, we are back in America again. Here just like it was when we left a so-called second-class citizen." And it actually brought tears to my eyes and the friends that I was with. That was the hardest part coming back home, you go overseas to fight for someone else's freedom and you come back home was none there at all for you, and it was a hard thing.
Now I got a family myself, so I'm carrying the kids around the memorials because I had to take them because I was there when my family took me when I was a young man so my first memorial we went to was Lincoln Memorial. I heard a lot about Lincoln Memorial when I was in school and I really now no doubt I want to see what this is really about. So we climb the steps my two children and we go into the chamber and to me it really hit me really hard because at that time this country was still segregated and what I read about this man is saying that every man is created equal and when I turn around and look and I say oh no this can't be true because my country is not treating me as equal as everyone else here you know and that was a hard thing for me to stomach.
There was a young man I heard about, this young person called Martin Luther King, really pushing civil rights and I had never seen the gentleman, I've only heard him speak through tapes that other people had but one day I come to find out that this young preacher was going to come and stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, same place that other great people like Marian Anderson stood in some because she was denied singing in places before. So I decided to take off that day and I rushed down to the Lincoln Memorial to get me a seat down front because I really wanted to see him but as the crowd grew I didn't care because I'm down front and I'm going to be able to see this man speak and as he spoke the words flowed out his mouth just like honey. I can just imagine how Lincoln felt when he was up at Gettysburg making his speech.
And as today, I really saw something that I never figured I would never see, an African-American being president of this great country. I never thought I'd see it, I'm in my 70s and I figured I'd be long gone from this earth and maybe my children will see it coming, but I'm here and now I am really proud to be American, I am proud of my country. They tried to silence Lincoln by assassinating him it didn't work, Martin Luther King went out there and he spoke and they tried to silence him and what happened, the word got louder and louder and you can see now the country is pulling themselves together and at the moment I'm trying to hold back these tears because I am very happy. I have gone to hell for my country and they told me you were nothing but now I've come to find out I am something and I think that's all I'm gonna have to say. Yes. That's it.
Ranger Gill Lyons shares his experience of civil rights in the U.S. through memories of his life and moments at the Lincoln Memorial. Join him for his personal stories of service in the Korean War, returning home to be treated as a second-class citizen, and taking his family to the Lincoln Memorial while living in a segregated country. He watched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give his most famous speech on the steps of Lincoln Memorial, and witnessed the election of the first African American U.S. President.
5 minutes, 29 seconds
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