Today, September 16, 2016, several thousand of us gathered on the Common before the Bulfinch State House and the 54th Regiment Monument (also called the Shaw Memorial), the rally under the heading Resist Deportation! The crowd gathered around the memorial, and mixed with a crowd of tourists gathered around National Park Service employees, one of whom was explaining to the tourists what the monument was all about. During the Civil War, there were no Black soldiers and eventually, after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts formed the 54th Infantry Regiment, in 1863, whose soldiers were all African-American, and whose officers were all white. The regiment was formed under the leadership of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and, on May 28, 1863, they gathered in Beacon Street in front of the State House and marched down Beacon Street, away to war, and, for half of them, to their deaths. The monument, sculpted by Augustus St Gaudens, memorializes that moment, that march away-to-war, from which half of them did not return. The movie Glory and this monument are about the heroism of this regiment.
In Glory, Matthew Broderick is Shaw, Denzel Washington is Private Trip, Morgan Freeman is Sergeant Major John Rawlins.
This monument is one of the great works of public art in America, and it is situated in a place—across Beacon street from the State House—where it can’t be ignored by visitors to the city and by residents walking on the Common. It suggests the story of the whole Abolitionist Movement in the nineteenth century in Massachusetts, and it also suggests the heroism of the Black soldiers of the Regiment, who fought in the South when the consequence might be that they, like any other soldier, might be killed in battle, or that they, like other Black soldiers, might be captured by the Confederacy, for they, these free men, would be sold as slaves and remain in servitude until the larger conflict—the Civil War—was resolved.
So, our rally today was held just at the spot on Beacon Street which marks the place where these heroic men marched in front of the State House, down the street, off to war and for half of them, to their deaths, doing what they had to do, showing they were men and were brave. I tend to stay away from the word “honor”—it has been too much used by the South in the tales it tells about the Confederacy—but it seems to me that it is the only word for the enlisted men, the Black infantry men, who marched off to war because they were men and had to fight for the right. It is the only word to describe these African-American men who had to seize the moment to show the world that they were entirely and completely Americans. .
Any rally on that spot is deeply moving. The most often repeated chant today was A people/United/Cannot be divided. But the one I liked best was this: What does America look like? The crowd roared back, Like us!—all the varied and diverse beauty of us, and we come, like Americans since the beginning, from all around the world. It is what we are that the heroic men in that monument made possible.