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Equal Opportunity Day

The Gettysburg Address is celebrated today by various groups in different ways, and the holiday is given a few different names. It is informally named Gettysburg Address Day simply because it marks the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's reading of the Gettysburg Address. It is also known as Equal Opportunity Day. This day was created by the National Urban League in 1956 and continues to be celebrated as such by the league and others, being proclaimed by politicians on multiple occasions. The third name given to the day is Dedication Day, having been formally named as such by a joint resolution of Congress in 1946. It continues to be celebrated as Dedication Day at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

The Battle of Gettysburg took place on July 1-3, 1863, between Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces and the Union Army of the Potomac under George G. Meade, in the southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. The Confederates were defeated, and Lee and his men retreated on the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was a battle of high casualties, with 23,000 Union and 28,000 Confederate soldiers killed, wounded, or missing, out of the 170,000 that fought.

Many Union dead were quickly buried in unmarked graves following the battle, but in the following months, a cemetery was established. A dedication of the new Gettysburg National Cemetery was set for November 19, 1863. Edward Everett, a noted orator and former politician and Harvard president, was chosen to give the main speech. David Wills, who had led the effort to make the cemetery, asked Lincoln in early November if he would also give some remarks to formally dedicate the cemetery, and he accepted.

Some have said that Lincoln wrote his whole speech on the train to Gettysburg, but this is not the case. He likely wrote the first part of the speech at the White House on November 18, finishing the rest of it that evening in Gettysburg. It was about 270 words in total (Lincoln's five handwritten copies of the speech vary between 270 and 273 words).

The following day, Edward Everett gave his speech first, which lasted around two hours. An orchestra then played a hymn composed for the day before Lincoln rose to speak. Before a crowd of 15,000 people, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. It took less than two minutes to deliver. Often memorized and quoted, it is now seen as being one of the greatest speeches in United States history. In it, Lincoln painted the Civil War not only as being about the Union but being about human equality as well. He referenced the Declaration of Independence, referring to fathers who had created a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal." He went on to say, "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced," so that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

It is by this basis that the National Urban League created Equal Opportunity Day, making it a day for people to rededicate themselves to the idea that all are created equal. The first Equal Opportunity Day was held on November 19, 1956, on the 93rd anniversary of the delivering of the Gettysburg Address. On the previous day, a Sunday, Reverend James A. Pike, Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, gave an address about equal opportunity that was broadcasted nationally on ABC television. Governors, mayors, and various officials have made proclamations for the day. President Eisenhower made a proclamation, saying "every citizen" should "join in the effort to abolish all artificial discrimination which hinders the right of each American to advance in accordance with his merits as a human being…"

An Equal Opportunity Day Dinner began being held in 1957. Each year at this dinner, Equal Opportunity Awards are given to two honorees. Besides the main dinner, National Urban League affiliates in many cities across the country hold Equal Opportunity Day dinners, and present awards to local leaders, although these dinners are not always held in the month of November.

Dedication Day is held at the Gettysburg National Cemetery each year. This day has commemorated the speech, and the cemetery has been rededicated each year since 1938. It has long been sponsored by the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, and in recent years it has also been sponsored by the Gettysburg National Military Park, the Gettysburg Foundation, and Gettysburg College. Speakers have included President Harry S. Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Shelby Foote, Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Hope Franklin, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Lang, Steven Spielberg, Ken Burns, and Sandra Day O'Connor, among others. In 1946, a joint resolution of Congress formally designated November 19 as Dedication Day and said the address should be read across the country. President Truman also issued a proclamation for the day.

How to Observe

Here are a number of ideas of how to celebrate the day:

  • Read and memorize the Gettysburg Address.
  • View copies of the address. Lincoln made five handwritten copies, all of which still exist. Two copies, the Nicolay Copy and the Hay Copy can be seen at the Library of Congress. The Nicolay Copy was given by Lincoln to his secretary, John G. Nicolay. It is the first draft of the speech. It was started on White House stationary at the White House and finished on different paper, likely in Gettysburg on the night before the speech. The Hay Copy is seen as the second copy and was given to White House assistant John Hay. The Everett Copy, given to Edward Everett for the benefit of soldiers, can be viewed at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Cornell University has the Bancroft Copy. The Bliss Copy is on display in the Lincoln Room in the White House. Its transcription is the most often used of the five, and it is also inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial.
  • Attend the National Urban League's Equal Opportunity Day Dinner. The dinner is held around November 19, but not always exactly on the day. Besides that national dinner, Equal Opportunity Day dinners are held in affiliate cities around the country, where local leaders are honored. You could attend one of these as well, but they are not always held in the month of November.
  • Visit the Gettysburg National Cemetery inside of the Gettysburg National Military Park. You could attend the annual Dedication Day event.
  • Watch The Address, a documentary by Ken Burns.
  • Watch videos of some famous people reading the Gettysburg Address.

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