Sunday, July 26, 2009

Abraham Lincoln: Complex & Imperfect

Edna Medford is a professor at Howard University who specializes in 19th century African-American history. Following are excerpts from a C-SPAN interview regarding The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views, a book she co-authored with Harold Holzer and Frank Williams.
Lincoln was very complex. He was very much a nineteenth-century man, but very much unlike nineteenth-century men as well. We do better for him and for the nation -- and for an understanding of the Civil War -- if we view him in all of his complexity. We're not willing as a nation to do that because he does embody what we believe is America. We think that America is flawless. No nation is.

If we look at him . . . what we see is a very remarkable person. We see someone who is much more powerful than we give him credit for when we say he's a saint and that everything was done correctly.

The first people to revere Lincoln were the former slaves because they did recognize the significance of the [Emancipation] Proclamation. They didn't have benefit of all that we known today about other people who were involved in pushing emancipation, as well. But they remained very much committed to Lincoln's memory for a long, long period of time.

By the time of the Depression, however, things started changing . . . African Americans, in revering Lincoln, believed that he had promised something more than just freedom. They defined freedom as full citizenship rights. When they didn't receive it, quite naturally, they have to go back to the person they says as the guarantor of that promise. Even those Lincoln had been assassinated . . . he was still held accountable for African Americans not receiving those full citizenship rights.

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Before his assassination, on more than one occasion, [Lincoln] had indicated that he wouldn't have a problem with seeing the "more intelligent" blacks get the right to vote, [along with] those who were veterans, and those who had supported the Union during the war.

He was not for universal suffrage, however. He may have gotten to that point [eventually], but we know that Lincoln did everything very cautiously. The fact that he was even willing to suggest that perhaps the soldiers and the more intelligent should have the right to vote was a step in the right direction.

I'm always bothered by the fact that he was not calling into question unintelligent white men, who had been voting all along. He did indicate, however, that he had a debt to pay to African American men. He said at the end of the war there would be some black men who could hold their heads high because they helped to preserve the Union, and there would be some white men who would have to hang their heads because they helped hinder it. . . .

Lincoln was a nineteenth-century man with some of the same prejudices of nineteenth-century men. The thing that distinguished him from other men of his era was that he believed very strongly in equality of opportunity and that people had a right to benefit from their labor. So he was antislavery.

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Today what I would say about the African American belief about Lincoln is that he was a great president, but not because he freed the slaves. Most people see him in a much broader contest than that.

He was one of the great presidents because he was a president during a war, because he preserved the Union, and yes, because he was the person who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which brings the country toward the final ending of slavery throughout the nation.

He's important for all those reasons, but he's not revered by African Americans in the way that he is by some other Americans. I must say that he's not revered by all white Americans, either.

The celebration of the Lincoln Prize was held in Richmond a few years ago, and there were people picketing, because they felt that Lincoln was a murderer, that he was responsible for the 620,000 people who were killed as a consequence of the war.

There are some Southerners who still feel very negatively about Lincoln. I don't think that African Americans feel negatively about him. African Americans just don't have an opinion about him one way or the other except that he was a great president. There's no special feeling for Lincoln, perhaps, as there was when the slaves were emancipated.

[Today, there typically are not large numbers of African American tourists and visitors going to Lincoln historical sites and museums.] I don't want to speak for all African Americans, but I think I understand it. It's because African Americans feel that those places are not for us.

We don't go to national parks, [and] we don't go to presidential libraries because we really don't feel that we're welcome at those places. Right or wrongly . . . we don't feel that we are totally included in America, even today, after all these years.

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