Silly me. I had naively assumed that when a writer as well known and respected as Lerone Bennett Jr. came out with a provocative book arguing that Abraham Lincoln was a racist who kept more blacks in bondage than he ever emancipated, it would kick up a stir. After all, Bennett, the executive editor of Ebony and the author of such works of black history as Before the Mayflower (1962), has long been one of America's most eloquent voices on racial issues. And the target of his furious screed is perhaps the most revered figure in American history. Putting the two together seemed like a surefire recipe for controversy.
True to its billing, there is hardly a page in Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream (Johnson Publishing Co.; 652 pages; $35) that won't rile Lincoln's defenders. To start with, says Bennett, Lincoln was a crude bigot who habitually used the N word and had an unquenchable thirst for blackface-minstrel shows and demeaning "darky" jokes. He supported the noxious pre-Civil War "Black Laws," which stripped African Americans of their basic rights in his native Illinois, as well as the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled the return to their masters of those who had escaped to free soil in the North. But Bennett's main theme is that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was only "a ploy" designed to keep as many slaves in bondage as possible until Lincoln could build support for his plan for ending slavery: "colonization," a preposterous scheme to ship the black population either to Africa or South America. His fondest dream, Bennett writes, was of a "lily-white America without Native Americans, African Americans and Martin Luther Kings."
These facts are not new, of course, in part because other historians have responded to a furious anti-Lincoln article Bennett wrote for Ebony in 1968 by providing less heroic profiles of the 16th President. What's new is Bennett's emphasis. As he writes, even now some white scholars tend to consign the unflattering truth about Lincoln's racist ideals to "footnotes and asides." Glory rips off the cover. And yet, since it was published in February, Glory has been met with what Bennett calls a "conspiracy of silence." By last week not a word had appeared in the book-review sections of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today or even the Chicago Tribune, Bennett's hometown newspaper. Or the New York Review of Books. Or the New Yorker. What's going on here?