For a Vast Future Also: Essays from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association

By Thomas F. Schwartz | Go to book overview

1
Lincoln and the Problem of
Race: A Decade of
Interpretations

Arthur Zilversmit

LONG BEFORE ALEX HALEY popularized the idea of “roots,” Americans have been concerned with the search for ancestors. The attempt to answer the question, “Who are we?” has often been answered by another question, “Where did we come from?” Although historians have been responsible for drafting answers to these questions, neither the questions nor the answers are exclusively within the domain of historians. Popular culture has its own answers, and we have, in fact, often witnessed a real tension between popular history and professional history in answering vital questions about who we are and where we came from.

In the 1960s, when race was an overriding concern, our search for self-definition through looking at our roots led to a heated controversy over the real meaning of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was one in a series of American founding fathers, and his views on slavery and race might provide a guide for those troubled days. The popular view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator could provide a source for an American commitment to racial justice. Yet, this picture could lead to an obvious question: if Lincoln pointed the way to racial justice, why, in over one hundred years, had we neglected to follow his padi? In February 1968, a prominent black journalist, Lerone Bennett Jr., offered an answer to the paradox when he charged that we, in fact, had followed Lincoln’s path. Bennett stated that Lincoln’s path was itself deeply flawed; Lincoln was the embothment of the American racist tradition.1

According to Bennett, no American story was as “false” as the tra-

-3-

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