Lincoln’s apotheosis inspired self-congratulation among whites and a backlash of doubt and outright disdain among blacks. Among many African Americans, a justifiable skepticism of Lincoln as the original Friend of the Negro has morphed into a broader dismissal of him altogether. But however conservative and incrementalist his policies seemed to them, and to many of us today, they were still far too radical for John Wilkes Booth and the millions who sympathized with him. Lincoln’s death is further evidence that men who are ahead of their times have a tendency to die at the hands of men who are behind them. It is also proof that the simple sentiment that the Union was more important than slavery was, in its own right, radical. However far Lincoln was from advocating racial equality, his second inaugural address stands as a monument of national conscience:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
Indeed, the real problem is not that the nation has so consistently sought balm for its racial wounds, and drafted Lincoln—and Obama—for those purposes; it’s the belief that we could be absolved from the past so cheaply. No Lincoln, not even an unfailingly moral one who was killed in service of a righteous cause, could serve as an antidote for ills that persisted, and continue to persist, for a century and a half after his demise. We find ourselves now in circumstances where actual elements of racial progress are jeopardized precisely because we’ve smugly accepted the idea of ourselves as racially progressive.
The Thirteenth Amendment states that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” We are a nation in which a black president holds office while more than half a million duly convicted black men populate the prisons and county and municipal jails hold hundreds of thousands more. The symbolic ideal of postracialism masks a Supreme Court that may undermine affirmative action in higher education and the preclearance clause of the Voting Rights Act. Our most recent election saw both unprecedented black turnout and efforts at black voter suppression that resound with echoes of bad history. Black unemployment, even among the college educated, remains vastly higher than it is for whites. (Among the more hideous hypocrisies of the recent election was Mitt Romney’s cynical appeals to black Americans, pointing out that blacks have suffered disproportionately in the Obama economy. The black president, we were to believe, is now also responsible for racism in the labor market.)
Obama himself was wise to these contrasts as far back as 2008, when he gave the speech in Philadelphia that saved his political career.
[W]ords on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part—through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk—to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
The election of an African American president is a watershed in our history. But the takeaway is that what we do during these moments is somehow smaller than what we do between them, that our heroes are no better than we are, nor do they need to be. Harriet Tubman is often cited as saying she could have freed more blacks if only she’d been able to convince them they were slaves. In our own era, the only impediment to realizing the creed of “We Shall Overcome” is the narcotic belief that we already have.
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