Just days before his assassination in April 1865, Lincoln gave a speech in which he advocated the right to vote for "very intelligent negroes" and 200,000 black Civil War veterans. The rest he apparently would allow to remain in sub-citizenship because of a lingering belief that blacks, as a race, were not as gifted or intelligent as whites and the few who were should be regarded as exceptions. It was that speech, writes Gates, "overheard by John Wilkes Booth, by Booth's own admission, that led to his decision to assassinate the president."
The great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, was a constant thorn in Lincoln's side, urging him to do what politically he did not always think he could do. Douglass pushed Lincoln toward dramatic and immediate action to free the slaves. He believed Lincoln was his only hope. Lincoln thought he could not move faster than the majority would tolerate and that in a nation already divided by civil war, he did not want to be the one to make things even worse, were that possible.
Douglass may have been the one least taken in by the Lincoln myth. While recognizing Lincoln's immense role in freeing some (but not all) slaves, he saw him first and foremost as devoted "to the welfare of the white race..." And yet, in that same tribute to Lincoln following his death, Douglass could also say without contradiction that Lincoln was "the first black man's president: the first to show any respect for their rights as men."
In 1876, Douglass was asked to reflect on Lincoln's legacy. He said, "Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery."
Lincoln overcame his prejudices sufficiently to begin moving his country in the right direction, culminating in the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Without Lincoln, his struggles and political courage in the face of his own prejudices, civil rights for black people would almost certainly have been further delayed and the election of a black president further denied.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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