Lincoln: Emancipator or white oppressor?
Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in May 2000.
Authors have written millions of admiring words about Abraham Lincoln, but Lerone Bennett Jr. didn't write any of them.
Bennett is the author of an incendiary book titled "Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream," which depicts the 16th president as an oppressor, a supporter of slavery and the relentless enemy of black equality. Racism, says Bennett, was "the center and circumference of his being." Next to Bennett's version of Lincoln, David Duke looks good.
Despite its provocative thesis, the book has been a well-kept secret, most likely because it comes from the obscure Johnson Publishing Co. Time magazine columnist Jack E. White complains that "Forced into Glory" is "not getting the kind of attention that nonfiction works by white authors have received." To resolve our racial issues, he says, we need "to stop ignoring Bennett's discomfiting book."
The book is useful because every generation ought to re-examine the received assumptions of our political culture. Bennett's portrayal will surprise both whites and blacks who grew up to revere the Great Emancipator. But this massive exercise in demonization fails because it misunderstands both Lincoln and his era.
At a superficial level, Lincoln harbored many of the racial prejudices of the time. He grew up in a society that assumed black inferiority, and he told racial jokes and even used the "N" word. Before becoming president, he said he didn't favor racial equality. As president, he insisted that "if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it."
But Lincoln's racial attitudes evolved as he grew older – to the point that Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, said he was "the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color."
Bennett accuses Lincoln of caring nothing about the plight of blacks, but the truth is that Lincoln took the position throughout his career that slavery was a "monstrous injustice." The important thing is not that Lincoln was free of racial prejudice, but that he could rise above it to oppose slavery and work toward its extinction.
He pursued his goals with a political skill and cunning that often confused his friends as well as his enemies. But pursue them he did, without cease.
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