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Rededication of refurbished World War II memorial set in Bloomington

McLean County Museum of History
A refurbished McLean County World War II memorial will be rededicated on the east side of the McLean County Museum of History November 5th at 1 p.m.

The McLean County Museum of History on Nov. 5 will rededicate a memorial honoring the 336 McLean County men and women who gave their lives for freedom during World War II. The memorial on the east side of the history museum in downtown Bloomington, went up 25 years ago and needed refurbishment.

The memorial includes inscriptions in granite about basic human rights first mentioned in President Franklin Roosevelt's State of the Union Speech on January 6, 1941. That address is now known as the 'four freedoms' speech: freedom of expression, freedom from fear, freedom of worship, and freedom from want.

Curt Hawk - four freedoms.jpg
McLean County Museum of History
Painters Union member Curt Hawk re-letters the Four Freedoms portion of the McLean County World War II memorial as part of the refurbishment of the 15 year old installation.

“That speech is remarkable. This is 11 months before Pearl Harbor, 11 months before the United States entry into the Second World War. Nonetheless, the war was raging both in the Pacific and in Europe. Bombs were falling in London, as Roosevelt was giving the address,” said McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp.

Roosevelt used the speech to promote his Lend-Lease policy offering military aid to Great Britain. But the address had several purposes, Kemp said. Among them was to prepare the nation for entry into the war.

'Freedom of Speech' by Norman Rockwell is a depiction of one of President Franklin Roosevelt's four freedoms.

“It was an absolute rejection of isolationism, this idea that we could build a wall around America, and all the worries of the world and especially in Europe would somehow not impact us. Roosevelt knew well that the problems of the world were also the problems of our country and vice versa, that we could not separate ourselves that we had to embrace internationalism,” said Kemp.

The speech was also a passionate defense of New Deal ideals and staked the claim that democratically elected government should provide people with basic necessities.

“In that speech, he talks about expanding health care, he talks about addressing the food crisis, he talks about employment, he talks about the pursuit of happiness, alluding to the Declaration of Independence,” said Kemp.

The first two of the four freedoms, freedom of speech and freedom to worship God as you so choose are enumerated in the Bill of Rights and in the First Amendment. The second two freedoms are where Roosevelt staked new ground for government.

“That's where things get a little revolutionary — freedom from want right? That's the right to shelter, right to food security, right to clean water, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Those are not constitutionally protected. Those are human rights. Those are instilling dignity to all human beings,” said Kemp.

Another facet of the speech is that Roosevelt tied these not just to the United States, but made them a global agenda as part of his internationalist point of view. When he listed the four freedoms, he ended sentences with "everywhere in the world."

“Of course, what he's doing here is providing some moral backing for the coming war,” said Kemp.

Such an overarching speech is applicable to all times and all places. But Kemp said the present day provides several examples of aspirational internationalism.

“The struggle that the Ukrainian people and government face in the current war with Russia certainly harkens to Roosevelt's call to support those who are who are giving up a treasure and blood, their own blood in the defense of these values, which we purport to believe in,” said Kemp.

The state of the union speech was well received in Bloomington-Normal Kemp said. Media coverage at the time included the text of the address, analysis, and reaction from people on the street.

“The consensus was among Bloomington residents was to support England because most Bloomington residents saw that we would be in the war soon enough. Little did anybody know that Pearl Harbor would be attacked 11 months from now, but people suspected that war was coming to the United States. So, we might as well support the right side and that being Great Britain,” said Kemp.

The speech filtered into pop culture as well. Chief among the examples is the four paintings done by artist Norman Rockwell as covers for the weekly Saturday Evening Post.

"In the freedom of speech painting, we see a prototypical New England town hall with a working class gentleman standing up about to give a speech. Freedom of worship depicts people in prayer. Freedom from fear is a scene of two parents tucking their children to bed, while the father holds a newspaper and you can glimpse a headline about the London Blitz. And freedom from want is probably the most famous of the four works of art that would be kind of a, a holiday seen at a table with the grandparents with this enormous Turkey,” said Kemp.

An anonymous gift of $80,000 and challenge to raise matching money has funded the restoration project for the World War II memorial that includes bronze plaques with the names of the McLean County fallen from the war instead of the original painted lettering. The rededication ceremony will be at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 on the east side of the McLean County Museum of History.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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