By Edward Achorn
The war on Abraham Lincoln continues.
San Francisco’s school district has opted to strip Abraham Lincoln’s name from a high school, evidently because (in the view of some activists) he did not do enough to protect Native Americans while a civil war was tearing the nation apart.
Though Lincoln was instrumental in freeing 4 million black slaves, he was also, it seems, among the presidents who failed to do enough to demonstrate that black Americans matter.
“Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through policy or rhetoric that Black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as casualties of wealth building,” Jeremiah Jeffries, the chair of San Francisco United School District’s School Names Advisory Committee said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Such a grotesque misreading of history — thousands of words from Lincoln’s own speeches and debates argue otherwise — is apparently accepted in San Francisco.
All the way across the country, Boston this week removed a statuary group celebrating Lincoln that originated in the minds and hearts of emancipated black Americans. The statuary group was a copy of one that former slaves had erected in Washington, D.C.
These proud Americans raised $17,000 — in some cases, the first dollars they had earned in freedom — as a show of respect for, and gratitude to, the brave president who had overseen the destruction of slavery before being assassinated by a white supremacist.
The memorial depicts a standing Lincoln holding the emancipation proclamation. A nearly naked black man is kneeling at his feet, manacles broken, looking up at the proclamation, ready to rise after centuries of deprivation, dehumanization, and brutality. The figure was modeled on Archer Alexander, the last man in Missouri hunted down as a fugitive slave. Alexander is a fitting symbol of the suffering people had endured under slavery and of their fierce hunger for freedom.
The great Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who dedicated his life to destroying the evil system, privately expressed qualms about the depiction of the black figure but attended the dedication and spoke eloquently about the role Lincoln had played in the liberation of millions. He argued it was both fitting and noble that black Americans had honored him. Today, the descendants of slaves are fighting in Washington to preserve the statue their ancestors created.
Until Tuesday, the Boston copy had stood at Park Square for 141 years. Boston was a particularly fitting site for such a memorial. The city was a crucible of antislavery activism before the war. This took serious courage. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a Boston man and Harvard professor, was clubbed down by a slaveholder on the floor of the United States Senate, nearly killed, for speaking out boldly about the evils of slavery.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation opened the way for former slaves to fight to secure their freedom. The most famous black regiment in the Civil War — the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, celebrated in the movie “Glory” — trained on the outskirts of Boston.
At the Boston dedication of the emancipation statue in 1879, Andrew Chamberlain, a black student at the Latin School, read a new poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that celebrated Lincoln’s role in emancipation:
We rest in peace where these sad eyes
Saw peril, strife and pain;
His was a nation’s sacrifice,
And ours the priceless gain.
I wonder how much of that history, if any, the statue-removers know.
A spokesperson for Mayor Marty Walsh said the statue was eradicated because of its “role in perpetuating harmful prejudices and obscuring the role of Black Americans in shaping the nation’s fight for freedom.”
No one seemed interested in what that first generation of emancipated black Americans thought about the matter. Surely they were far more profoundly affected by slavery than those offended by their memorial today.
If these arguments for removing Lincoln from the public square seem weak to you, you are not alone. Many argue this is, rather, part of a movement to undermine the freedoms Americans enjoy. If you erase a culture’s heroes and shatter its venerated past, you may more easily manipulate its people.
The British writer George Orwell wrote about this approach in his famous novel about a totalitarian state, “1984”: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
I hope history has not stopped. I believe most Americans still revere Lincoln for his rare courage and empathy, his profound suffering in keeping this nation alive, and his eloquent words about the meaning of America.
More than anything, Abraham Lincoln is revered for breaking the manacles of 4 million Americans and helping this nation live up to the noble and revolutionary credo of its Declaration of Independence — that all men are created equal. Until Lincoln is entirely erased, the America he defended and saved — the place he called “the last best hope of earth” — will live on.
Or as Whitter put it in his poem celebrating the now-vanished Boston emancipation monument:
Stand in thy place and testify
To coming ages long,
That truth is stronger than a lie,
And righteousness than wrong.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)