Abraham Lincoln was just the start of America's journey to racial equality

Published 29 April 2014  |  
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States

There's a passage in Charles Frazier's book Cold Mountain (1997) where the Confederate deserter and hero of the tale, W.P. Inman, attempts an explanation of why he and fellow Rebels fought and died for the South:

"I reckon many of us fought to drive off invaders. One man I knew had been north to the big cities, and he said it was every feature of such places that we were fighting to prevent. All I know is anyone thinking the Federals are willing to die to let loose slaves has got an overly merciful view of mankind."

No doubt Mr Inman was expressing an accurate appraisal for both sides of America's Civil War as very few, if any, of the mill and other industrial workers from the North - who made up the bulk of the Union armies - were fighting to liberate the four million slaves of the United States.

For the "higher-ups" on both sides, including President Abraham Lincoln, the issue was the inviolability of the Union versus the States' rights to secede.

This is not the impression one gets when listening to Abraham, Martin and John, a song penned by Dick Holler in 1968 and a big hit that same year for Dion (of The Wanderer fame). Much covered by various artists and getting regular playtime, the song has a pleasant tune, if a little melancholy, and commemorates the assassinations of President Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr and President John F Kennedy.

Mr Holler's lyrics imply that these men were murdered in their fight to give African Americans equal civil rights. Each man – in the order as sung of Abraham, John and Martin – is honoured with the line:

"He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young..."

Leaving aside Dr King's admirable leadership in the civil rights movement, the two Presidents seem to be represented in an ethereal light which doesn't reflect political reality, doesn't do justice to the sheer struggle needed to bring about that which the American Constitution guaranteed – the equality of all men – and doesn't give credit where it is rightly due.

Abraham Lincoln was a moderate Republican and though not an Abolitionist, thought slavery abhorrent. In a famous speech in Peoria (October 1854) in which he condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was designed to settle the issue of slavery in these two territories by means of "popular sovereignty", he loudly proclaimed:

White and Black soldiers in 1861.

"...I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its influence in the world..."

Shortly after President Lincoln's inauguration on 4 March 1861, America's Civil War broke out between the Union and the Confederate States on 12 April, but it was not until the President issued his Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, declaring the freedom of all slaves in the ten states remaining under the Confederacy, that the abolition of slavery could be properly said to be a war aim.

The Proclamation was not passed by Congress but was made by the President in his capacity as Commander in Chief as a military measure. It encouraged slaves to desert the South and so induce economic havoc because nearly every able-bodied white male of fighting age had been drafted into the army. Some 200,000 African Americans would fight under the Union Flag during the War, a number considerably more than the deserters the Proclamation had incited.

Strange to relate however, and an indication of just how cautious President Lincoln had to be, the Proclamation did not free any of the slaves in the four states which had remained in the Union: Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Missouri; the state of Tennessee or West Virginia (a state from 20 June 1863).

The slaves in all those areas had to await the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to Abolish Slavery and Involuntary Servitude except as punishment for a crime. It was the first of the Reconstruction Acts and proclaimed ratified by Secretary of State William H Seward on 18 December 1865.

Two further Reconstruction Period Amendments were made to the Constitution. The Fourteenth (1868) settled the issue that African Americans were citizens and obliged states to give all citizens equal protection under the law; and the Fifteenth (1870) prohibited federal or state governments denying a citizen the right to vote on the basis of "...race, color, or previous condition of servitude".

(Photo: Library of Congress)
A "Colored" waiting room sign at a Greyhound bus station in Rome, Georgia, 1943

The Reconstruction Period ended in 1877 when the Democrats gained complete control of Congress and much of the legal rights and protection that had been enshrined in these Amendments became circumvented by states, particularly in the South, amending their constitutions through "Jim Crow" Laws and "Black Codes" which effectively disenfranchised black people.

White supremacy throughout the South became a fact by 1910 and had been brought about not simply by manipulating the law but also involved widespread violence, intimidation and discrimination. Coloured people were obliged to use separate washrooms, sit in designated areas of cinemas, restaurants and buses, and were forbidden to enter certain amenities and the like.

The party of the South was the Democrats and their willingness to vote en bloc, or the threat of doing so, made Washington fearful of taking remedial action.

Not all Congressmen from the South were segregationists however. A notable exception was Lyndon Johnson ("LBJ"), a Texan, who, before graduating as a schoolteacher had taught poor Mexican-American children for some nine months in the late 20s. He was left with a deep impression, realising as he said later, just before signing, as President, the Higher Education Act (1965) into law, that none of the children he had been teaching could ever afford to go to college.

Throughout his life in politics Johnson was regarded as a hard boss and extraordinarily ambitious. John F Kennedy undoubtedly chose him as his running mate in the 1960 Presidential election for this reason, over the objections of his brother Robert and numerous others, as he needed a person who could garner the support of the Southern Democrats.

Once installed in the White House, President Kennedy found his deputy rather trying but knew he couldn't afford to alienate him – they would have run as a partnership in the Election of 1964 had JFK not been assassinated. Against the advice of his coterie from the North East, Kennedy gave the workaholic Johnson projects which kept him close to the White House and too busy to speak to the media, like the USA's Space Programme.

(Photo: Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office)
President Lyndon B Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr, and others look on.

The project which he was given and would later dominate his own domestic agenda as President, was to take charge of JFK's Equal Employment Opportunities Programme. This role suited the Vice President as he had worked on both 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts. Liaising with racial minorities, Johnson also sought the advice of a man who had fought long and hard for civil rights causes in the Democrat Party and would become his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey.

Hubert Humphrey had been elected to the Senate in 1948 and immediately called for the ending of racial segregation and for a strong programme of civil rights. Continually frustrated during a long political career, he would become the main author of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This, he managed to steer through the Senate on its Second Reading after a filibuster by Southern Democrats that had lasted 57 working days.

President Johnson signed the Act into law on 2 July 1964.

Just as Lincoln believed at the time of his Peoria Address that slavery besmirched the standing of the United States in the world, so too did Humphrey and Johnson feel about racial discrimination, in all its forms, in early 60s America. It remains an issue to this day - and the indigenous Americans, who have been largely absent in America's racial equality debate, are probably wondering whether they will ever have their turn."

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