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C-SPAN To Air Roundtable Discussion on Presidents’ Day




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C-SPAN To Air Roundtable Discussion on Presidents’ Day

WASHINGTON – The image of Abraham Lincoln as an aggressive, activist “Great Emancipator” was challenged Sunday by participants at a “Roundtable on African American Perspectives on Abraham Lincoln,” but regardless of his motives, without Lincoln’s leadership slavery would have continued “for several more decades at least,” said Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., who hosted the event on behalf of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

C-SPAN will air the roundtable, in its entirety, on Presidents’ Day, February 19, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.  The program will re-air twice:  February 20 at 12:30 a.m. Eastern (9:30 p.m. Pacific on February 19), and again on February 20, 4:30 a.m. Eastern/1:30 a.m. Pacific

“Abraham Lincoln’s iconic status in America derives, in part, from the mythology that grew up around him after his assassination,” said Jackson, (D-IL), in opening remarks. “It is good to step back and untangle some of that myth from the facts so that we all have a better understanding of this great man.”

Jackson is a member of the ALBC, appointed to the Commission by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

The facts and myths about Lincoln’s role in ending slavery served as a starting point for much of the discussion.

Panelist Roland Martin, a radio commentator, newspaper columnist and former editor of The Chicago Defender, opened the discussion by arguing that emancipation for the slaves inherently was a moral issue, but he said, Lincoln approached it as a political and military issue, and ultimately was “forced” to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

The panel’s moderator, Dr. James O. Horton, ALBC Commissioner and professor of history at George Washington University, noted that while there were people at the time who advocated for emancipation on moral grounds, “they weren’t going to be elected president.  Lincoln was.”

Horton said the roundtable was important for providing historical context “for understanding some of the most critical issues of the 21st century.”

“Efforts toward an expanded American freedom begun during the Civil War remain yet unfinished business,” said Horton.

Phil Harris, a partner in the law firm Jenner & Block, agreed, citing the continuing inequality among the races and the obstacles of non-whites in many areas, such as hiring.  He said it is not uncommon today for employers to talk about seeking “qualified minorities” to hire, as though that is somehow a bigger challenge than finding qualified white candidates.

“The roundtable was informative and educational, as it represented a range of views on the life and deeds of President Abraham Lincoln,” said panelist Hermene Hartman, founder and publisher of the weekly African American magazine N’Digo.  “I learned that, whereas Lincoln freed the slaves, he never believed that blacks were equal to whites.  This established the negative view of the ‘Negro’ that still exists today.”

Many panelists expressed concern about the selective use of facts in teaching about Abraham Lincoln, which results in perpetuating the “heroic Lincoln.”  Hartman related a personal story about writing a paper for a high school history class.  She received a failing grade, she said, even though she did extensive research and consulted with history professors at the University of Chicago because her thesis suggested that Lincoln did not free the slaves but that they freed themselves.

Kyle Westbrook, who teaches history at Chicago’s Walter Payton College Preparatory, said that he tries to present a balanced approach to teaching Lincoln, including an exploration of the actions of slaves and freed slaves in bringing about the end of slavery.  Commonly used textbooks, though, do not typically delve that deeply, he said.

“Good history starts with good questions,” said panelist James Grossman, vice president for research and education at Chicago’s Newberry Library, which co-sponsored the event.  He said that the role of history is to discover new facts and ultimately new and better understanding of those facts.

“Clearly, many slaves did self-emancipate through the Underground Railroad before the war, and through flight during the war,” said Jackson in his closing remarks.  “Even so, that is not the same as bringing an end to the peculiar institution of slavery, which only the Civil War and Lincoln’s leadership did. By pronouncing slavery a moral evil that must come to an end and then winning the presidency in 1860, provoking the South to secede, by refusing to compromise on the issue of slavery’s expansion or on Fort Sumter, by careful leadership and timing that kept a fragile Unionist coalition together in the first year of war and committed it to emancipation in the second, by refusing to compromise this policy once he had adopted it, and by prosecuting the war to unconditional victory as commander in chief of an army of liberation, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.”

The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, which sponsored this roundtable, was established by Congress to plan educational, public, and legacy events to mark the 16th president’s 200th birthday in 2009.  Its members, who are appointed by the president and congressional leaders, include political leaders, jurists, historians, and collectors. 

Co-sponsors of the roundtable included the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, and the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. 

In addition to Martin, Harris, Hartman, and Westbrook, and Grossman, panelists included: Charles Branham, University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, and emeritus professor, Indiana University; U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL); Adam Green, associate professor of social and cultural analysis and history, New York University; Cheryl Johnson Odim, provost & vice president, Dominican University, River Forest, IL; Julieanna Richardson, executive director, HistoryMakers, a Chicago-based archive of African American video oral histories; Jacqueline Stewart, associate professor of radio, TV & film, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; and Dawn Turner Trice, novelist and columnist, Chicago Tribune.

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