BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.: A Teaching Moment
On August 28, 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and spoke of the “great beacon light of hope” our sixteenth president kindled when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation “five score years ago.” If ever there was a place to use the (admittedly overworked) phrase, “teaching moment,” it is right here, as the tissue of allusion to Lincoln’s authorship — of the Gettysburg Address as well as the Proclamation — opens up the possibility for us to discuss Lincoln both as protagonist in and progenitor of King’s dream.
When King speaks of America’s greatness as measured by freedom ringing from the hilltops, mountains and slopes of states ranging from New Hampshire to Mississippi, he is relying on a notion of Union that Lincoln brought newly into focus with his insistence on territorial integrity. New York City, not withstanding its many Lincoln detractors (Lincoln and New York, currently on view at the New-York Historical Society vividly makes this point), can take pride in its role as a center for the articulation of this doctrine which saw the federal government and its executive as, among other things, a key to making good on what King calls the “note” that “was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is why prominent New Yorkers such as Henry Bellows, Francis Lieber, George Templeton Strong, and Frederick Law Olmsted spawned a movement, expressed in the “Articles of Association” of the city’s Union League Club that pledged “by every means in our power, collectively and individually to resist to the utmost every attempt against the territorial integrity of the nation.” Lincoln’s notion of Union prevailed after the Civil War, and though King’s speech says much about the continuation of deplorable conditions for African-Americans, it is nevertheless why he thinks he may get a hearing on the topic of inequality in Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana when he takes his message to the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.
Lincoln also framed an important and early discourse on the promise of America’s founding doctrine, and the obligation of contemporary Americans — his contemporary Americans — to finally realize it. Already in 1854, as Lewis E. Lehrman shows in his book, Lincoln at Peoria, Lincoln envisioned what he would later on in his Gettysburg Address call “a new birth of freedom” — a fresh chance for individual Americans to secure the principle “that all men are created equal.” In 1963, King calls this “cashing” the founder’s “check.” Though five score years have passed, he still believes in the power of Lincoln’s Union to bring forth a new birth of freedom.
This year, as we reflect on Lincoln and on King, let’s take this teaching moment — that is, the opportunity that arises out of one man’s role in another’s dream — and see what insight we might offer our students, or they, us, into why we might celebrate both men together, and what the consequences of each of their histories might be. #
Louise Mirrer, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society.