Abraham Lincoln and African Americans

As the central figure of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, his policies and his decisions have been repeatedly scrutinized. The years 2011 thru 2015 will commemorate the 150th anniversary dates of various events of the Civil War, and Lincoln is once again the subject of much reassessment and reevaluation.

African American opinion of Lincoln has gone through an almost Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis and now, hopefully, a synthesis is being reached.

The thesis was that Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, saved the Union and was the Great White Father and the Great Emancipator to America’s slave population. African Americans gleefully joined Lincoln’s new Republican Party, a party that was founded specifically to oppose the further expansion of slavery, and African Americans stayed loyal to “the party of Lincoln” for almost a century.

Lincoln was still held in such high regard that Martin Luther King Jr. had his historic 1963 March on Washington conclude at the Lincoln Memorial. During the famous “I Have A Dream Speech” delivered at the conclusion of the march, King said, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” King was unabashedly declaring Lincoln as a great American and linking his Civil Rights movement to the legacy and moral character and guidance of Lincoln.

Then came the antithesis. Many African American scholars began to trash Lincoln. For example, Ebony magazine historian Lerone Bennett Jr. questioned whether Lincoln should be known as the Great Emancipator, or even known as someone who deserves any respect within the black community. All of Lincoln’s shortcomings were pointed out. Lincoln’s proclamation applied only to slaves in states joining in the insurrection. It did not apply to the slave states like Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Missouri that stayed loyal to the union. In effect, it did not immediately free a single slave. Furthermore, early in his administration Lincoln supported a colonization plan to return African Americans to Africa or to the Caribbean. Also, before he became president, Lincoln said during his debates with Stephen A. Douglas that he did not believe in the political and social equality of whites and blacks. He also said during his presidential campaign and the early part of his administration that he would only oppose the extension of slavery into “the territories” and would not tamper with it where it already existed. This was far short of where most abolitionists were on this issue. Another demerit on Lincoln’s record is that he replaced Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, who was a reliable abolitionist, with Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat who opposed secession but also supported white supremacy and the oppression if not enslavement of blacks. Fearing he would not be reelected as things stood, Lincoln allowed Johnson to join him on the ticket in an effort at unity as part of the National Union Party. Johnson did a horrendous job of carrying out the Reconstruction and Hamlin, or almost anybody else for that matter, would have done much better.

Hopefully we are now to the synthesis stage of the dialectic. It must be noted that Lincoln won election only three years after the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in which Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that black Americans were not citizens and had no rights in which “a white man was bound to respect.” So Lincoln must be kept in the context of his time. Although most northerners were abolitionists, many if not most of them held deep racial prejudices and did not want black people moving in among them. This was especially true of those in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois.

Also to be noted is the fact that Lincoln underwent tremendous social, political and moral growth during his time in office. He completely moved away from his colonization stance and moved toward allowing African Americans to serve in the Union military and toward opposing slavery everywhere, not just in the territories. Lincoln also had legitimate concerns that if he moved too fast toward black emancipation, he could lose border states like Kentucky and this in turn could tip the scales toward the Confederacy.

During his second inaugural address, Lincoln said: “If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

This is a huge leap forward, a valuing and recognition of the contribution slaves had made to the wealth and the economy of the nation. During his final days, as the war started to wind down and victory for the Union forces seemed inevitable, Lincoln started revealing things he wanted done after the war. He gave a speech in which he said he felt qualified black men, such as those who served as Union soldiers or had demonstrated academic and intellectual achievement, should be given the franchise. One person who heard Lincoln utter these words was John Wilkes Booth. He was offended by such progressive notions of black equality, and this may have been the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back in terms of what Booth was planning to carry out. It might be argued, then, that Abraham Lincoln was one of the first persons martyred on behalf of the cause of African Americans becoming full citizens.

There are so many reasons for African Americans to acknowledge the enormous legacy Lincoln left to America and the sheer importance of the man. But the simplest explanation is that before he came into office African Americans were slaves with no rights, and just as he was tragically leaving office and in the immediate years thereafter, African Americans were freed and Lincoln’s allies had passed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, giving African Americans the pathway to full citizenship. African Americans benefited greatly from the leadership and presidency of Lincoln.


“I Have A Dream Speech” by Martin Luther King Jr.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, taken from the Norton’s Anthology of American Literature

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