The Great Emancipator: Abraham Lincoln…or Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Editor’s note: The National Constitution Center celebrates African American History Month with a variety of programs and exhibits that spotlight the story of the African American experience and the struggle for equality, including a close look at the Center’s rare printing of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Photograph by Alexander Gardner, 3 October 1863.

In the fictional “Killing Lincoln,” Bill O’Reilly touts Lincoln as our best president. In part, that accolade is based on the perception of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.

In the 1860 presidential election, Lincoln and the Republican platform supported slavery in the states where enslavement then existed, but opposed the extension of slavery in the territories. Like the Free Soilers, many Republicans believed that slavery violated the white man’s right not to unfairly compete as a laborer with slaves or businessman with non wage paying slave owners.

Shortly before his inauguration, Lincoln reversed position and lent his support to a proposed Thirteenth Amendment. The so-called Corwin Amendment explicitly recognized slaves as property and the right of slave-owners to keep slaves anywhere on American soil. On March 4, 1861, with Lincoln and Republican support the amendment passed the House by a vote of 133 to 65 and the Senate by 24 to 12. With the start of the Civil War on April 15, 1861, the amendment was not ratified by the states.

During the first eighteen months of his administration, Lincoln opposed emancipation. In early 1862, President Lincoln fired Secretary of War Simon Cameron in part for publicly proposing emancipation. Cameron based his support on needed troops for the then undermanned Union Army.

Teacher’s corner

This author makes the case that President Lincoln should not be deemed the Great Emancipator. Did the author simplify complex events or was his arguments sound? If you agree with the author, then who or whom deserve to given the title of the Great Emancipator(s)? Do you agree with the author’s assessment that Dr. King Jr. was the Great Emancipator? What exactly were the goals of black emancipation?

Lincoln opposed the Fremont emancipation order issued in August 1861. Major General John Fremont commanded the Union Army in Missouri. Missouri together with Maryland, Delaware and Kentucky were four slave states in the Union. Fremont ordered that the property of those slaveholders in rebellion would be confiscated and that their slaves would be freed. Lincoln required Fremont to rescind freeing slaves. Confiscated slaves of rebelling slaveholders would remain Union property. Missouri slaveholders, who supported the Union could keep their slaves.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It freed slaves that were the property of Confederates, but did not free slaves that were owned by Union slaveholders.

The Emancipation Proclamation was justified as a military necessity that incentivized the Confederacy’s free labor to defect and encouraged slaves to fight in Negro companies in the Union Army.

England had abolished slavery in the 1830s. Lincoln was concerned that England, which had significant cotton trade would join the Confederate cause. The Emancipation Proclamation likewise helped keep England on the sidelines.

In early 1865, Lincoln reversed position and endorsed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in all states. Shortly before his assassination, Lincoln supported providing the right to vote to those Negroes who were “the very intelligent and those who served our cause as soldiers”.

Abraham Lincoln’s racial attitudes mirrored his fellow countrymen. They had not gone to war to free the slaves, to provide Negroes with citizenship or to grant slaves the right to vote. With victory and martyrdom, Lincoln was lionized. One hundred years after his assassination, it was activism symbolized by sit-ins, Selma and the March on Washington that generated momentum. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided building blocks for the denied, but long sought equality. The Great Emancipator was not Abraham Lincoln, but rather the martyred Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Malcolm Lazin is the Founder and Executive Director of the Equality Forum.

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