Was Abraham Lincoln a racist?

Author and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. tackles that thorny question this week in a two-hour PBS documentary called “Looking for Lincoln.”

Honest Abe. Father Abraham. The Great Emancipator.

No white man in history, perhaps, has been more revered by black Americans than Abraham Lincoln.

Former slaves wept at the news of his death. His image once hung in African American homes much like the King-Kennedy-Jesus trilogy would in later years. And when Barack Obama launched his presidential bid, he began his campaign in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln’s hometown; he cited Lincoln’s words frequently on campaign stumps; he retraced Lincoln’s inaugural train route to Washington from Philadelphia; and he used Lincoln’s Bible at the swearing-in ceremony.

But was the Great Emancipator a racist?

As the United States this week marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, historian and author Henry Louis Gates Jr. tackles that complex topic in a two-hour PSB documentary, “Looking for Lincoln.”

In a commentary today on theroot.com, Gates says he cried at age 10 when he read a Reader’s Digest version of the 1955 bestseller “The Day Lincoln was Shot.” But in later years, he says, his “engagement with the great leader turned to confusion” as he learned other aspects of our enigmatic 16th president.

“The truth is that until very late in his presidency, Lincoln was deeply conflicted about whether to liberate the slaves, how to liberate the slaves and what to do with them once they had been liberated,” Gates writes. “Whereas abolition was a central aspect of Lincoln’s moral compass, racial equality was not.”

To illustrate his point, Gates offers these lines from a speech Lincoln delivered in 1858 in Charleston, Ill.:

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

But despite such rhetoric, Lincoln did do much to set African Americans on a path toward racial equality.

So what should we make of this conflicted character — a man who, by all historical accounts, actually hated slavery yet pushed to have emancipated slaves shipped to a third country for recolonization?

Was Lincoln, in fact, a racist?

Like most historians, Gates ducks that thorny question. He fairly acknowledges that Lincoln, perhaps more so than any U.S. president, governed in complex times and that his views evolved.

“He certainly embraced anti-black attitudes and phobias,” Gates concludes on The Root. “By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was on an upward arc, perhaps heading toward becoming the man he has since been mythologized as being: the Great Emancipator, the man who freed—and loved—the slaves. But his journey was certainly not complete on the day that he died. Abraham Lincoln wrestled with race until the end. And, as (W.E.B Du Bois) pointed out, his struggle ultimately made him a more interesting and noble man than the mythical hero we have come to revere.”

For a listing of local stations (and times) airing the Gates documentary, click the following PBS link.

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