By Edward Epstein
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Abraham Lincoln needs your help.
In Chicago, in the very heart of Lincoln country, a city committee in February listed five statues of the 16th president for possible removal. The elected school board in San Francisco voted to rename Abraham Lincoln High School, along with schools named for a raft of other historical figures, before recently backtracking amid a storm of criticism. Other statues of Lincoln across the country have been vandalized.
Lincoln’s offenses? Even though his presidential policies on emancipating four million African-American slaves and then starting to grant them voting rights set off a still-unfinished second American revolution, he also held some views which we today would see as racist and was by 21st standards pretty brutal in some dealings with American Indians.
The Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia, which since the 1930s has been dedicated to studying the philosophy, statesmanship, compassion and wisdom of Lincoln, feels that he deserves to be honored – whether in statuary or in the names of schools or other public places.
Lincoln was not perfect, by any means, but the evolution of his views and his devotion to the possibilities of America for all its people, make him an example for today.
Now the Lincoln Group is trying to spread that view, get more people to learn about Lincoln and see his relevance for today, and always. What should people do? “Get educated,” Lincoln Group vice president David Kent said on April 13 during an online presentation sponsored jointly by the group and by the Illinois State Society of D.C. They can also make their views known when issues surrounding Lincoln arise in their communities.
The presentation, “The Case for Honoring Lincoln: Why Statues of Abraham Lincoln Should Be Saved,” was aimed directly at Chicago, where a public comment period on the statue removal idea has closed and the committee is now engaged in closed-door deliberations.
“We are trying to explain why Lincoln’s message resonates today,” Lincoln Group president John O’Brien said during the forum. “His example must be elevated as a symbol for all to see.”
Lincoln Group officer Debbie Jackson, who is also a member of the Black Women’s Playwrights Group, had a one-word explanation for why Lincoln should be honored. “Freedom!” she sang out on the presentation. “When Lincoln lived, slavery was an accepted
institution…He had to grapple with how to uproot this wretched institution.”
As word of the Emancipation Proclamation spread, slaves gathered on the evening of Dec. 31, 1862 – “watch night” – to mark the great moment. New Year’s Eve is still commemorated in the same way today in many black churches and by other groups.
Kent conceded that Lincoln’s record on dealing with Native Americans is problematic. In 1862 Lincoln was confronted with a terrible situation in Minnesota, where an uprising by Dakota tribesmen had resulted in the killings of hundreds of whites. Military tribunals tried 303 Dakotas and sentenced them to death. Despite warnings that he risked political losses by getting involved, Lincoln had all the records of the trials sent to the White House.
Even with all the other major issues confronting him in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln went through all the cases. He pardoned 265 Indians, who he said were not tied directly to any killings. But he allowed another 38 to be hanged, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Kent conceded that the case is a blot on Lincoln’s memory, but he said, “We honor Lincoln for all he did achieve.”