Was Lincoln a Racist?

  • Silly me. I had naively assumed that when a writer as well known and respected as Lerone Bennett Jr. came out with a provocative book arguing that Abraham Lincoln was a racist who kept more blacks in bondage than he ever emancipated, it would kick up a stir. After all, Bennett, the executive editor of Ebony and the author of such works of black history as Before the Mayflower (1962), has long been one of America's most eloquent voices on racial issues. And the target of his furious screed is perhaps the most revered figure in American history. Putting the two together seemed like a surefire recipe for controversy.

    True to its billing, there is hardly a page in Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream (Johnson Publishing Co.; 652 pages; $35) that won't rile Lincoln's defenders. To start with, says Bennett, Lincoln was a crude bigot who habitually used the N word and had an unquenchable thirst for blackface-minstrel shows and demeaning "darky" jokes. He supported the noxious pre-Civil War "Black Laws," which stripped African Americans of their basic rights in his native Illinois, as well as the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled the return to their masters of those who had escaped to free soil in the North. But Bennett's main theme is that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was only "a ploy" designed to keep as many slaves in bondage as possible until Lincoln could build support for his plan for ending slavery: "colonization," a preposterous scheme to ship the black population either to Africa or South America. His fondest dream, Bennett writes, was of a "lily-white America without Native Americans, African Americans and Martin Luther Kings."

    These facts are not new, of course, in part because other historians have responded to a furious anti-Lincoln article Bennett wrote for Ebony in 1968 by providing less heroic profiles of the 16th President. What's new is Bennett's emphasis. As he writes, even now some white scholars tend to consign the unflattering truth about Lincoln's racist ideals to "footnotes and asides." Glory rips off the cover. And yet, since it was published in February, Glory has been met with what Bennett calls a "conspiracy of silence." By last week not a word had appeared in the book-review sections of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today or even the Chicago Tribune, Bennett's hometown newspaper. Or the New York Review of Books. Or the New Yorker. What's going on here?

    I don't know, but it's an indisputable fact that Glory--one of the most important reassessments of Lincoln, or any other white figure of similar stature, by a black author--is not getting the kind of attention that nonfiction works by white authors have received. That's not because the book lacks merit. As University of Florida historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage wrote in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, it contains the "most systematic, best-researched and compelling critique of Lincoln's [beliefs about race] that I know of." The only major newspaper to review the book so far, the Los Angeles Times, printed a nuanced critique by noted Columbia University historian Eric Foner in early April. While Foner blasted Glory for being repetitious, argumentative and unconvincing to "readers who do not already believe that Lincoln was an inveterate racist," he also praised Bennett's thoroughly documented charge that white scholars have "consistently soft-pedaled" Lincoln's obnoxious racial attitudes.

    So why isn't the book being noticed? Is it because Bennett's belief that "Lincoln must be seen as the embodiment, not the transcendence, of the American tradition of racism" is a message some people don't want to hear? "We need to confront slavery and apologize for it to put it behind us," Bennett contends. "Everywhere we look today, Civil War issues are exploding--in South Carolina and Mississippi with the Confederate flag, with the renewed call for reparations for slavery. We've not dealt with those issues yet and we're not going to be free until we do." One small way to speed up the process might be to stop ignoring Bennett's discomfiting book.