By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
Excerpt from the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963.
Americans will remember the birthday of Civil Rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on Monday, January 21, with a public holiday. King was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, a city infamous for its White supremacist culture and history.
King would have been almost 11-years-old on December 15, 1939 when the city of Atlanta hosted the film premiere of the White supremacist movie, Gone with the Wind. The movie was based on the best-selling novel of the same name which was written by Margaret Mitchell who was born in Atlanta 29 years before King.
King gave his speech, now popularly known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, at the Lincoln Memorial following the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. He praised Abraham Lincoln as many had done before him as the man who was responsible for the emancipation of enslaved Africans. A recent movie about Lincoln’s final days as America’s 16th president also portrays him as the “Great Emancipator”.
In his book, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote:
“(Lincoln) did everything he could to deport Blacks and to make America a Great White Place. If Lincoln had his way, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson Sr., Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, and even Clarence Thomas would have been born in slavery. If Lincoln had his way, there would be no Blacks in America at all. None.”
Bennett was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. He attended the historically Black post-secondary institution (Dr King’s alma mater), Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Forced into Glory was published by Johnson Publishing Company, where Bennett served as executive editor of Ebony magazine and wrote several articles on African-American history. In Forced into Glory Bennett addresses the myth of Lincoln freeing enslaved Africans with an emancipation proclamation:
“What Lincoln did – and it was so clever that we ought to stop calling him honest Abe – was to ‘free’ slaves in Confederate-held territory where he couldn’t free them and to leave them in slavery in Union-held territory where he could have freed them.”
With meticulous research, Bennett debunked the myth of Lincoln as a caring person who worked to free enslaved Africans in America. He first addressed the issue in an editorial published in Ebony magazine’s February 1968 edition, entitled “Was Lincoln a White Supremacist?”
“Lincoln was an opportunist, not an idealist. There was not, in his view, enough room in America for Black and White people. On August 14, 1862 he called a handpicked group of Black men to the White House and proposed a Black exodus. He told the Black men that it was their duty to leave.”
Bennett writes that Lincoln’s rationalization for suggesting the exodus was:
“You and we are different races.”
Bennett also argued:
“Academics and media had been hiding the truth for 135 years and that Lincoln was not the great emancipator or the small emancipator or the economy-sized emancipator.”
According to Bennett in this recorded interview (www.booknotes.org/Watch/158187-1/Lerone+Bennett.aspx) Lincoln made his own “I Have a Dream” speech where he called for “free White people everywhere” to immigrate to the U.S. to make it a White country.
Bennett, whose biography in Ebony (April 2008) describes him as author, historian, lecturer and executive editor emeritus, wrote:
“Unlike King, unlike Phillips, unlike Douglass, but like Jefferson, Lincoln dreamed of an all-White nation, governed by White people, only for White people.”
Since Bennett’s book was published almost 13 years ago, there have been several reviews by White historians who agree that:
“Lincoln did share the racial prejudices of his time and place. He did support the idea of colonizing Blacks abroad – though he retreated from this notion after 1862 and moved toward a policy of assimilating the four million freed slaves as equal citizens. Lincoln did lag behind the abolitionists and the radical wing of his own party in supporting Emancipation and the enlistment of Black soldiers.”
However these same reviewers/historians claim that Bennett has misinterpreted the recorded evidence that Lincoln was a White supremacist who did not think that Africans were the equal of Whites, was a great fan of minstrel shows where White men in “Blackface” degraded African culture, used the “N” word incessantly, was fond of making “darky” jokes and who voted in favour of the Fugitive Slave Laws.
On August 27, 1858 at Freeport, Illinois during his second of seven debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln is quoted as saying:
“In regard to the Fugitive Slave Law, I have never hesitated to say, and I do not now hesitate to say, that I think, under the Constitution of the United States, the people of the Southern States are entitled to a congressional Fugitive Slave Law.”
Douglas, the Democratic candidate (incumbent elected 1847) and Lincoln, the Republican candidate (newcomer, relatively unknown) were campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat to represent Illinois. On September 18, 1858 in Charleston, Illinois, during the fourth debate with Douglas, Lincoln once again spoke on the hot topic of the day:
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.”
“Lincoln was as active as any racist of his time in perpetuating Negro stereotypes. The words n _ _ _ _r, darky and coloured boy came easily to his lips. It appears from the admittedly incomplete record that Lincoln used the N-word at least as often as the Mark Fuhrmans of today. He might have used it even more for, unlike Fuhrman, who tried to hide his hand on official occasions, Lincoln used the word openly on public platforms and in the Illinois State House and the White House.”
With all the recorded evidence available, Lincoln in the recent movie is portrayed as the great emancipator who fought to end the enslavement of Africans in America. Not surprisingly, although the movie is premised on Lincoln’s effort to get the 13th amendment passed, which would end chattel slavery in the U.S., all the African-American characters had very peripheral roles.
Like the movie Gone with the Wind, Africans are props for the White characters. There is no recognition of the roles that Africans played in ending slavery. Not a sign of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman who worked as a scout, spy and nurse for the Union army during the Civil War. She organized a sophisticated information-gathering operation of scouts and spies and led several of the missions into enemy territory.
In July of 1863, Harriet Tubman-led troops under the command of Colonel James Montgomery in the Combahee River expedition, disrupted Southern supply lines by destroying bridges and railroads and freed more than 750 enslaved Africans. Tubman is credited with significant leadership responsibilities for the mission, where she came under Confederate fire.
General Saxton, who reported the raid to Secretary of War Stanton, said:
“This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, Black or White, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted.”
The movie was disappointing because the three African-American characters that marginally addressed the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States did nothing but passively wait for White men to liberate them. It reinforced the assumption that history is the purview of White men who rescue racialized people.
Elizabeth Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868 titled Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, organized other African-American women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the African-Americans who sought refuge in Washington during the Civil War.
Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association (SCSA), an organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on Black economic and social successes and met with Lincoln to discuss the issue of emigration (which they opposed) in August, 1862. They were both active in the abolition movement but you would never know that by watching the movie.
As Americans prepare to recognize King with a public holiday and Africans in the Diaspora who admired King as a Civil Rights freedom fighter, one has to wonder when those who own mainstream media will get the message.
We can speak for ourselves and tell our stories. We know who our heroes and sheroes are and do not need anyone else to choose them for us.