Speaker: Lincoln was Ďracistí

Author featured at symposium claims president meant to prolong slavery

By DOUG POKORSKI
STAFF WRITER

A crowd composed mainly of admirers of Abraham Lincoln listened politely Tuesday to a speaker who called Lincoln a "racist" and said the notion that he had anything to do with freeing the slaves is "the Lincoln lie."

The normally staid Lincolnís Birthday Symposium in the Hall of Representatives at the Old State Capitol was the venue for a speech by controversial author Lerone Bennett Jr., whose 1999 book "Forced Into Glory" portrays Lincoln as a white supremacist who did his best to prolong slavery, not end it.

"Iím weird on Abraham Lincoln," Bennett conceded at the outset.

Bennettís passion for his subject occasionally got the better of him, as near the end of the symposium when, during a dispute over a Lincoln quotation, Bennett seized a microphone from fellow speaker Allen Guelzo and would not allow Guelzo to finish his point.

Bennett, executive editor of Ebony magazine, said Lincolnís Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did not free any slaves, but really was an attempt to delay emancipation. It took the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to actually free the slaves, he said.

He contended that Lincoln was "forced into glory" by black and white abolitionists, who pushed him further in the direction of freedom for the slaves than Lincoln really wanted to go.

"Lincoln was a bit player, a walk-on player on a liberating wave that would have crested higher and sooner without him," Bennett said.

He also contended that Lincoln believed that blacks were inferior to whites and did not have any human rights in America.

"Lincoln was no friend of black people," he said.

A capacity audience attending the symposium listened quietly to Bennettís speech, applauding politely at the end.

Because Bennett spoke last on the program, Guelzo and fellow Lincoln scholar Brooks Simpson had little opportunity to respond directly. Since Bennettís views are well known, however, they addressed some of his issues beforehand.

Guelzo noted American blacks at the end of the Civil War had a different view of Lincoln, crediting him almost single-handedly with the emancipation of the slaves. For example, a crowd of recently freed slaves mobbed Lincoln in gratitude when he was on a visit to Richmond, Va. Blacks at the time called Lincoln "Father Abraham" and compared him to Moses and Jesus Christ.

After Lincolnís death, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass proclaimed that Lincoln was "emphatically the colored manís president."

It was not until well into the 20th century, Guelzo said, that people seriously began to challenge the idea that Lincoln played a significant role in freeing the slaves.

Simpson said it is simplistic to focus just on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation when examining the events that led to emancipation. The proclamation was just one of several steps Lincoln took to end slavery, he said, including promoting a number of pieces of legislation, and "pulling strings and making deals" to get the 13th Amendment passed.

Lincolnís No. 1 priority, preserving the Union, also was a key to ending slavery, Simpson said.

"Lincoln realized that whatever he did about slavery would have little impact unless the Union prevailed in destroying the Confederacy," he said.

While many people ó including abolitionists and runaway slaves who fled to Union lines, forcing Union authorities to deal with them ó contributed to the end of slavery, Simpson said, "In the end, Lincolnís role was pivotal."

Doug Pokorski can be reached at 788-1539 or doug.pokorski@sj-r.com.

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