On Wednesday, Joe Biden will be inaugurated at the U.S. Capitol as the 46th President of the United States. A transition that affirms one of the foundational strengths of American democracy.
Of course, just 14 days earlier, an insurrectionist mob tried to tear down that very democracy, in the very place where Biden will be inaugurated.
The thread of history wends, twists and turns back on itself. Two miles from the Capitol, at the other end of the National Mall, sits the Lincoln Memorial. In 1861, on the eve of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, implored a fragile nation:
“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.”
The thread continues. 147 years later, the United States elected its first Black president.
On election night 2008, photojournalist Matt Mendelsohn went to the Lincoln Memorial and took a picture of the people gathered there. The quiet moment the photograph captures is almost impossible to imagine now, given the nation’s current politics.
“These people came to just ponder good things. And thousands of rioters came to do terrible, terrible things to our democracy. The polar opposite of pondering good things," Mendelsohn says. "And I think I’ll stick with the tiny, little group quietly pondering any day of the week.”
Mendelsohn’s photograph eventually came into the hands of Congressman John Lewis, who gave a copy of it to President Obama as an inauguration present. The picture hung outside Obama’s White House office for the next eight years.
In this radio diary, Mendelsohn tells us how this photo — and that moment of civic reverence for democracy — came to be.
This segment aired on January 19, 2021.