February 13, 2013

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Still Excites Controversy After 150 Years

One hundred and fifty years ago, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1.

A series of events marking the 150th anniversary of this historic event will take place this month at the Princeton Public Library and Princeton High School Performing Arts Center.

The documentary film, Looking for Lincoln, written by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., screens tonight, February 13, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Library’s Community Room. The two-hour film reconstructs Lincoln’s complex life with insights gained from re-enactors, relic hunters, past presidents, Lincoln scholars, and historians.

On screen, Mr. Gates tackles the controversies that Lincoln’s life story provokes; issues of race, equality, religion, politics, and depression. Besides numerous Lincoln scholars, among those offering comment in the film are Pulitzer Prize winners Doris Kearns Goodwin and Tony Kushner; and presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Former Ebony editor Lerone Bennett challenges Lincoln’s record on race. Writer Joshua Shenk talks about the president’s depression.

A second documentary, based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, will be shown next Friday, February 22, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., also in the Library’s Community Room. The film challenges the belief that slavery in America ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Slavery by Another Name is an indictment of America’s failure to preserve the great moral victory of the Civil War and the mythologies we adopted to hide that failure,” says Mr. Blackmon. “No one group gets the blame. No one group gets to take credit.” Mr. Blackmon argues that both parties failed African-Americans over the span of many decades. To make his case, he evokes events following the Proclamation signing: Lincoln’s successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, encouraged the return of white supremacist control of the South; Republican Teddy Roosevelt, initially a friend to African-American citizenship, turned against them; Democrat Woodrow Wilson extended Jim Crow segregation throughout the federal government. According to Mr. Blackmon, it was not until the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that the first serious and sustained effort to defend the actual freedom and civil rights of blacks began. Even so, those efforts were deeply flawed, he states.

Until joining the Washington Post in 2011, Mr. Blackmon was chief of The Wall Street Journal’s Atlanta bureau and the paper’s senior national correspondent. He has written about or directed coverage of some of the most pivotal stories in American life, including the election of President Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party movement and the BP oil spill. He has also written extensively about race in America, from the integration of schools during his childhood in a Mississippi Delta farm town, to the Civil Rights movement and the dilemma of how contemporary society should grapple with a troubled past.

Slavery by Another Name grew out of a Wall Street Journal article revealing the use of forced labor by dozens of U.S. corporations and commercial interests in coal mines, timber camps, factories, and farms in cities and states across the South, beginning after the Civil War and continuing until the beginning of World War II. It was a New York Times bestseller, and received numerous awards including a 2009 American Book Award.

After the film first aired on PBS, Mr. Blackmon coined the term “historical contortionism” to describe some of the responses to his work that would use history as contemporary propaganda: the impulse to “value history only to the degree that bits and pieces can be used as ammunition in some contemporary fight — usually in ways that are irrelevant and ultimately false.”

“Unfortunately, there are also still many people who are desperate to contort every fragment of history that they find into a foundation for a particular political agenda,” says Mr. Blackmon. Democrats wish to “forget their ardent opposition to civil rights for African Americans a century ago” and Republicans wish to “claim credit for passage of the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s, even though the moderate wing of the party that cooperated with Lyndon Johnson in those votes has since been essentially obliterated.”

On Thursday, February 28, from 7 to 9 p.m., Mr. Blackmon will join Princeton historian James M. McPherson and students from Princeton High School in a Community Commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Princeton High School Performing Arts Center, 151 Moore Street.

Mr. Blackmon and Mr. McPherson will speak and sign copies of their books. The event will also feature readings and songs by PHS students.

McPherson is professor emeritus of United States history at Princeton University and an authority on the Civil War. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 book Battle Cry of Freedom. His Abraham Lincoln will be the subject of discussion at the Library on Tuesday, February 19, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Library’s Quiet Room.

In addition, a student-led Black History Month celebration: An Evening of Cultural Celebration at Princeton High School will take place on Wednesday, February 27. The event, which is free and open to the public, will features food, dance, music and poetry.