Memory  /  Explainer

The 1619 Project and the ‘Anti-Lincoln Tradition’

The Great Emancipator's character and anti-slavery legacy has been questioned by Black Americans for over a century.

For much of the century following Lincoln’s death in 1865, the president was held in high esteem within Black American communities. As a child in Jackson, Mississippi, Bennett witnessed this devotion first-hand, later describing Black attitudes towards the president as almost Christ-like. However, such sentiments should not obscure the complexity of Lincoln’s relationship to Black America – something embodied through his most prominent Black critic and admirer, Frederick Douglass, who in the years following Lincoln’ death would alternatively describe him as both ‘the Black man’s president’ and ‘preeminently the white man’s president.’ More broadly, a small but vocal contingent of Black historians and intellectuals stressed that Lincoln’s views on slavery did not automatically make him a friend of Black people. In a 1901 presentation at the Boston Literary and Historical Association, Black lawyer Archibald Grimke contended that Lincoln’s primary concern had been the preservation of the Union and that he was ‘no friend to humanity as evidenced by the negro.’ 

This complex relationship can be traced on an institutional as well as individual level. The self-professed mission of the National Negro Committee, later renamed as the NAACP, was explicitly intertwined with Lincoln’s legacy. Early statements contended that ‘Abraham Lincoln began the emancipation of the Negro American. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People proposes to complete it.’ Yet Diana Schaub has suggested that the NAACP’s official publication The Crisis became the key vehicle through which W.E.B Du Bois helped to usher in a ‘turn away from Lincoln’ during the 1920s. America’s preeminent Black intellectual criticized Lincoln’s veneration and called for a reckoning with his contradictory impulses: ‘cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves.’ Du Bois would expand upon this characterization in Black Reconstruction (1935), where he applauded Lincoln’s role in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, but also noted that for the majority of his life Lincoln ‘simply could not envision free Negroes in the United States.’ 

By the 1940s and 1950s this dualistic image of Lincoln had spread to the pages of the Black popular press, where readers could find forceful defenses of Lincoln’s status as the ‘Great Emancipator’ alongside commentary by influential journalists such as Simeon Booker and civil rights activists such as Constance Baker Motley which noted Lincoln’s opposition to Black social and political equality. Into the 1960s work by academically trained Black scholars maintained a tone of qualified praise for the sixteenth president, with Benjamin Quarles’ Lincoln and the Negro and John Hope Franklin’s The Emancipation Proclamation adopting a racially liberal approach that emphasized Lincoln’s shifting racial attitudes and capacity for personal growth.

However, these sentiments were rapidly overtaken by New Left and Black militant historians, who framed Lincoln as ‘unheroic, opportunistic, and somewhat insensitive to the suffering of black people in bondage.’ Arguably the most forceful attack came through Bennett’s 1968 Ebony essay “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” a question the journalist answered in the positive and which was taken up by Black Power activists such as Julius Lester, who declared that ‘Blacks have no reason to feel grateful to Abraham Lincoln.’