Lerone Bennett, Jr; Lincoln not hero of legend

Historians in the News

Speaking in Cornell's Sage Chapel to a crowd of about 40 people as part of the Sage Wednesday Series, Bennett said people have made a hero of a man who doesn't deserve it — Abraham Lincoln.

"To tell the truth, history was not reinvented by Lincoln, but against Lincoln," Bennett said, "not by his acts but by acts he opposed."

Bennett worked for Ebony magazine as an editor for five decades and is the author of 10 books on U.S. racial history. He was born in Mississippi in 1928, graduated from Morehouse College and participated in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. His book, "Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream," questions Lincoln's role as the Great Emancipator.

Bennett said Wednesday that Lincoln's identity in American history has been warped.

"He was not a great emancipator, he was not a small emancipator, he was not even a regular-sized emancipator," Bennett said, drawing laughs.

"The Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves; the 13th Amendment to the Constitution freed the slaves. If you meet a historian in Ithaca who says the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, call the police — because you are either dealing with a charlatan or an innocent who needs to be protected from himself."

The Lincoln Bennett described opposed equal rights for blacks and Latinos, and supported the deportation of all blacks living in the states. As a lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln sent runaway slaves back to slavery, he said.

He said it is his mission to open a dialogue on Lincoln and bring about the acceptance of the real person.

"I'm not saying it for black people alone," he said. "You can't understand Lincoln, you can't understand the Civil War, you can't understand religion, you can't understand the American dilemma unless you understand the joy and pain and the glory of the black odyssey in this land."
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James W Loewen - 9/12/2008

Lerone Bennett wrote a great book (BLACK POWER USA: THE HUMAN SIDE OF RECONSTRUCTION), a good book (his general history of African Americans), and a bad book (on Lincoln). In the last, as in his Cornell talk, he cherry picks Lincoln's quotations to find racist items. That can be done. Like T. Jefferson, Lincoln wrestled with race his entire life. Unlike Jefferson, Lincoln advanced in his thinking and helped lead the nation toward an anti-racist path (that briefly bore fruition during Reconstruction, as Bennett correctly notes).
Bennett's view of Lincoln had some utility when he first wrote it in an EBONY article in about 1967. At that point, some African Americans (and nonblacks too) viewed Lincoln as the man who single-handedly ended slavery. That won't do, of course. But Bennett has been on this same one note for 40 years now. Maybe that's why he drew only 40 listeners at Cornell.

Randll Reese Besch - 9/10/2008

He had many good qualities but when it came to the Union he was short on mercy. Like during WWI, those who wanted the carnage to stop were jailed without trial. Lincoln may not have liked slavery but would have allowed its continuance to keep the Union whole.

The Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the rebellious south for the duration of the war. Lincoln believed in sending the black slaves back to Africa not accepting the idea they would assimilate in a predominately white culture.