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The Suburbanite
  • Gayle Beck: Black leaders’ belief in Lincoln ‘often taxed’ but didn’t fail

  • Fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. helped to organize the March on Washington, his eyes were on the future. But when he spoke from the Lincoln Memorial to hundreds of thousands of people on Aug. 28, 1963, he began by looking back 100 years, to Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

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  • Fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. helped to organize the March on Washington, his eyes were on the future.
    But when he spoke from the Lincoln Memorial to hundreds of thousands of people on the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963, he began by looking back 100 years, to Abraham Lincoln’s signing of 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,” King said. “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.”
    King said much more about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation two weeks later at a New York event marking the document’s 100th anniversary.
    Lincoln hated slavery and said so publicly as early as the 1830s. But his views were complicated and ever-evolving. “Lincoln’s torments are well known, his vacillations were facts,” King said, but “his hesitation had not stayed his hand when historic necessity charted but one course.”
    A FINE LINE
    King’s speech hinted at the ambiguity that black leaders of Lincoln’s own time had felt about him — an assessment alternatingly furious and forgiving.
    Frederick Douglass and other black leaders tempered their impatience with the understanding that Lincoln walked a fine political line. He feared alienating the slave-holding states on the border of the Confederacy to the point of secession. And he believed that the Constitution required him to uphold slavery in states still in the Union.
    Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, in his capacity as commander in chief. He said emancipation was a military necessity to deprive the Confederate army and landowners of the slave labor that freed white Southerners to fight. The Proclamation affected only slaves in “the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States.”
    Lincoln believed that the men and women who were held in bondage were entitled by natural law to the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” enshrined in the Constitution. But he did not promote social and civil rights for them, which he said were the states’ prerogatives. In fact, for most of his life, Lincoln thought it would be wiser for freed slaves to settle in Haiti, Panama or Liberia.
    When Douglass spoke in 1876 at the unveiling of a monument honoring Lincoln, he catalogued the black community’s simultaneous disappointment and belief in Lincoln: “Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed. When he tarried long in the mountain; when he strangely told us that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us that we were to leave the land in which we were born ... we were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled. ... We were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position.”
    Page 2 of 2 - ‘A HOUSE DIVIDED’
    Lincoln originally believed, as the Founders did, that slavery would die out on its own. But by 1858, he knew that the powerful movements favoring the spread of slavery and the abolition of slavery could not co-exist. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said in accepting the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for a U.S. Senate seat. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved ... but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
    As president, he also came to believe that God had willed him to write and sign the Emancipation Proclamation. He was referring to this covenant when, early on the day he was to sign it, Mary Lincoln asked him: “Well, what do you intend on doing?”
    He answered: “I am a man under orders; I cannot do otherwise.”