Monday, January 19, 2009

If not now...

For years, I never thought I would live to see the day when Leningrad would be called St. Petersburg once more. If my expectations of an African-American President were not quite so dismal as my hopes for the fall of Communism, they were at least projected into an ever-receding future of perhaps 30 to 50 years. The last time I watched a Presidential inauguration on television, in 1961, the Civil Rights Act had not been passed, and the University of Mississippi had not been integrated. Many adults I knew regarded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a dangerous radical.

I remember that in 1988, George F. Will suggested that the Republican Party nominate Colin Powell for Vice-President and steal a march from the Democrats, but that opportunity was forfeited by both parties. (Senator, you were no Colin Powell!)

Tomorrow's inauguration comes 200 years after the birth of the Great Emancipator, 120 years after the death of a sad and unrepentant Jefferson Davis, 100 years after the founding of the NAACP, about 70 years after FDR nominated Benjamin O. Davis as the first African-American general in the U.S. military (his son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., later became the first black Air Force general), and roughly 100 years after Teddy Roosevelt outraged many Southerners by having Booker T. Washington to the White House as his dinner guest. When Roosevelt had visited Memphis, in 1902, he had spoken at Church Auditorium, built several years earlier by millionaire black Memphis businessman Robert Church Sr., since local laws forbade him and his fellow blacks to use city parks and other facilities.

Writing in today's New York Times, Henry Louis Gates and John Stauffer argue, quite plausibly, that Lincoln himself, a man of his own time, would likely have been horrified by the thought of the government of the United States being entrusted to a black man. I agree. As the article points out, Lincoln casually used such terms as "Sambo," "Cuffee," and "nigger," and addressed Sojourner Truth as "Aunty." On the eve of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he invited black leaders to meet with him and discuss the possibility of founding a black republic in Central America to which freed slaves would be urged to emigrate. Like the author of the words "All men are created equal," Lincoln saw no possibility of racial equality as consistent with a stable system of government.

Having said that, Lincoln should be honored, not only for political measures, but for his own efforts to transcend the attitudes of his day and stretch his understanding of the possibilities between whites and blacks, as he did, for instance, in cultivating a personal friendship with his contemporary, the charismatic black spokesman Frederick Douglass. Nor was he alone; even former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had became notorious for the slaughter of black troops at Fort Pillow, attended an Independence Day picnic in Memphis as the invited guest of black organizers in 1875, 2 years before his death. Admitting privately after the event that he had been quite uncomfortable, the former slave trader addressed the gathering and said that he was ready to offer the hand of friendship and assist the black man in achieving any station in life to which his talents entitled him. For the founder of the Ku Klux Klan to utter such words was like walking a thousand miles, and I doubt that any of us today, having been raised in this more inclusive age, have progressed as far in our own attitudes about race.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

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