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 EbonyThe 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.” 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
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!
So which was the real Lincoln, the benevolent countenance hanging on the walls of black people’s homes, the Man Who Freed the Slaves, or this man whom Du Bois was quoting, who seemed to hate black people?
You can read the entire blog for yourself, if you're interested, as he does have some interesting insight to this matter as well as links to further information. I only want to pose one question: Does this actually matter now? It's long been understood that more than a few or out nation's more prominent leaders have been prejudice, slave owners, etc. A lot of us, like Gates Jr., learn at an early age and it seems mind blowing...at first. It's always been my impression thought that once you've studied these people and their particular situations and environments you get an even better understanding of who and why they were.
Honest Abe was trying to unify a nation. Do you not have to speak the entire nation's language to unify it? You don't have to agree with many but you need to be able to converse with most. In the end, maybe Lincoln put on a good show for those who thought him nuts for trying to free the slaves. In the end, maybe he was a racist but realized that the nation couldn't move forward while living in a such an uncivilized manner. In the end, he did what most of us felt was the right thing to do...racist or not.
Once again, thanks for reading.