Was Lincoln a Racist?

The Great Emancipator was far more complicated than the mythical hero we have come to revere.

Posted:
 
abraham20lincoln

Read the washingtonpost.com Live Online discussion: "WAS LINCOLN A RACIST?" with The Root's editor in chief Henry Louis Gates Jr.

*****

I first encountered Abraham Lincoln in Piedmont, W.Va. When I was growing up, his picture was in nearly every black home I can recall, the only white man, other than Jesus himself, to grace black family walls. Lincoln was a hero to us.

One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1960, when I was 10 years old, I picked up a copy of our latest Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and, thumbing through, stumbled upon Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot, which had been published in 1955 and immediately became a runaway bestseller. It is an hour-by-hour chronicle of the last day of Lincoln’s life. I couldn’t help crying by the end.

But my engagement with the great leader turned to confusion when I was a senior in high school. I stumbled upon an essay that Lerone Bennett Jr. published in Ebony magazine entitled “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” A year later, as an undergraduate at Yale, I read an even more troubling essay that W.E.B. Du Bois had published in The Crisis magazine in May 1922. Du Bois wrote that Lincoln was one huge jumble of contradictions: “he was big enough to be inconsistent—cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man—a big, inconsistent, brave man.”

So many hurt and angry readers flooded Du Bois’ mailbox that he wrote a second essay in the next issue of the magazine, in which he defended his position this way: “I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. ….”

To prove his point, Du Bois included this quote from a speech Lincoln delivered in 1858 in Charleston, Ill.:

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Say what? The Lincoln of 1858 was a very long way from becoming the Great Emancipator!

Comments
The Root encourages respectful debate and dialogue in our commenting community. To improve the commenting experience for all our readers we will be experimenting with some new formats over the next few weeks. During this transition period the comments section will be unavailable to users.

We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your continued support of The Root.

While we are experimenting, please feel free to leave feedback below about your past experiences commenting at The Root.