Irony Abounds Surrounding Inaugural Site

The National Mall is known as the nation's gathering place, and it surely will be Tuesday as Barack Obama is inaugurated before a crowd some officials say could top 2 million.

As CBS News Senior White House correspondent Bill Plante noted on The Early Show Monday, the mall's history is rich in historic events and, in more than a few cases, incredible irony.

For the first time on Inauguration Day, the entire two-mile length of the mall will be open to the public. In the past, much of it was used for staging the inaugural parade. But it is being opened up not only for the expected throngs, but because of its special place in the nation's public life.

From the inaugurations of FDR ("nothing to fear but fear itself) and JFK ("Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country), to massive anti-war protests in the Vietnam era and the mammoth March on Washington in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his momentous "I Have A Dream" speech, the mall has seen more than its share of riveting times.

For more than a century, it's where politicians and the public have shared the stage.

The Lincoln Memorial, at one end of the mall, was intended to send a message that all Americans would be welcome there.

But no sooner was it completed in 1922 than came its first controversy, over just how welcome some Americans would be.

During the dedication ceremony, keynote speaker Robert Moton, an African-American, was ushered to segregated seating following his remarks -- remarks that were edited to remove Moton's call for more racial equality.

"From that day, on this very site," observes historian Cynthia Field, "has been full of that meaning: How do we address the civil rights, the unhealed part of our nation?"

In 1939, at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, singer Marian Anderson sang from the steps of the memorial dedicated to the great emancipator -- after she was refused permission to perform in Washington's Constitution Hall.

And nearly 25 years later, the March on Washington filled the mall as the world heard the impassioned plea of a preacher from the segregated South.

"I have a dream," Dr. King said, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today."

So, Plante suggested to Field, "As we observe Dr. King's birthday (Monday) and think about him standing on the steps and think of an African-American being inaugurated as president."

"It really fits on the mall," Field said. "It's so right that people should be standing on the mall for this inauguration, from the Washington Monument to these very steps" of the Lincoln Memorial.

Just one day left, Plante concluded, before Barrack Obama stands before the nation as its first African-American president -- on the mall there were once slave markets.



To see the Special Report: Inauguration '09," click here.