Lincoln: A Myth Lives On
The Lincoln Memorial at 100
When taking students to the Lincoln Memorial I ask them to “Tell me anything you know about Lincoln.”
In among the comments about his towering height and beard, someone will offer that he freed the slaves or was an abolitionist or civil rights leader.
The myth of Abraham Lincoln is alive and well.
It is grounded in the belief that Lincoln freed all slaves with the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation or that he did so as an act of racial justice: neither is true.
The Proclamation freed only enslaved African Americans where Lincoln deemed it politically wise and then “as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.”
All others remained in chains.
The Proclamation had nothing to do with civil rights, equity or justice, since enslaved African Americans in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia were not freed.
Lincoln was ambivalent at best about African American freedom much less about full civil rights and equality.
As a lawyer he represented slave-owners against fugitive slaves.
As president he blamed Black leaders for the war.
He believed free Blacks should leave the U.S. in favor of Africa or Haiti.
He also said if he could end the war without freeing a single slave, he would do it.
Framing Lincoln as an abolitionist or civil rights leader obscures the valiant and courageous acts of Sojourner Truth, William Seward, Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison and others who risked all for the freedom and rights of Black Americans.
Lincoln is ironically known as “Honest Abe” even though his work on behalf of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution included bribing House members to vote the right way.
The measure passed by a mere two votes; nice work Mr. President.
(By the time the Amendment was passed all but Delaware had freed their slaves anyway.)
But the postscript is that African Americans in the south were not granted freedom after all.
When President Rutherford B. Hayes removed Federal troops from the south in the 1870’s, white southerners constructed a set of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws which held African Americans in perpetual servitude without any semblance of civil rights for nearly a hundred years.
And things were no better when the Memorial was dedicated in 1922; the ceremony was segregated by race and Robert Moton, head of the Tuskegee Institute, was told to tone his comments down.
He cut this from his remarks:
“So long as any group is denied the fullest privilege of a citizen to share both the making and the execution of the law which shapes its destiny — so long as any group does not enjoy every right and every privilege that belongs to every American citizen without regard to race, creed or color, the task for which the immortal Lincoln gave the last full measure of devotion — that task is still unfinished.”
The Lincoln Memorial (and Lincoln) benefit greatly in the public consciousness by two great civil rights events held there: Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert and Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington.
Ole Abe gets a big bump for hosting the events; he becomes a civil rights leader by mere association.
Though Lincoln deserves much credit for saving the Union and for being one of the most wily and clever politicians in American history, he arrived late, if at all, to the fight for African American freedom and rights.