On Feb. 10, 2007, Senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States in Springfield, Illinois. He did it at the old state Capitol building, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech. The symbolism in the staging of the announcement was intentional. For this is the same place, where Lincoln spoke after signing the legal document emancipating the enslaved while holding together this nation’s broken union — Obama’s announcement positioned him as the heritor of Lincoln’s legacy.
On one side of this political equation, it’s reasonable to believe a person of color could be elected president in this day and age. In what we would call naivete now, he thought he could be the bridge that united America in overcoming racial prejudice the conclusion of the “long arc of justice” and the herald of a “post racial America.” Essentially, Lincoln and Obama were supposed to be historical bookends. This all sounded good but the analogy turned out to be anything but. In retrospect, the historic connection between Lincoln and Obama is stronger and more alike than anyone knew at the time President Obama was inaugurated.
This history of the American Civil War started weeks before President Lincoln’s first inauguration. It wasn’t so much that this Republican won as it was the hostilities between North and South that had been simmering for many years over slavery, buttressed by the debate over “states’ rights.” The Civil War was the most violent expression of these core Southern values based on individual property rights — human bondage included.
Lincoln didn’t come into office to explicitly end slavery. In fact, he said many things that would lead us to believe keeping the union together was more important than emancipating Black people. However, it was his election that precipitated the war. Two bloody years later, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 to help quickly end the war. Later that year, he delivered his famous speech on the Gettysburg battlefield, which started, “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It’s notable that he didn’t say “all white men.” However, that speech was attempting to unify a deeply divided nation on a battlefield where 46,000 to 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle — the most costly in all of U.S. history.
He ended that speech with this vision for the future, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” He would not live to see this happen and in the intervening years between Gettysburg and the surrender at Appomattox, Reconstruction and the Obama presidency this country has struggled with the true meaning of who “the people” actually include.
Racism in America has had a long and enduring legacy that is at the very core of our nation’s consciousness and conflicts — something that post-Civil War immigrants hardly understand. It is why Black civil rights have taken center stage ever since.
It is a well known fact that on the very night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell gathered the Republican leaders of Congress to plan to oppose and obstruct this new president and his Democratic party. It did not start off as a plan for the insurrection on the Capitol 12 years later, but it surely led to it by hostile partisanship; all the while Obama attempted to reach across the divide on healthcare, drastic Wall Street and banking reform and ending the unpopular war in Iraq.
The rise of Birtherism, questioning Obama’s birth certificate status to be president, was only a part of the racism lodged against him, supported by none other than Donald J. Trump, a celebrity, reality TV brand who was a well known con artist and racist in New York. That Trump would later replace him as No. 45 shocked both the nation and world. It did, however, set the stage for what was to come with the revival of old racial grievances that the majority of Americans thought were dead and buried history, like the Civil War soldiers at Gettysburg. How can America be racist if we elected a Black man as president?
Trump’s election, in response was like a conjuring up of all the ghosts of America’s past, playing to some of the most base prejudices latent in the collective unconscious, fed by Fox News fear mongering and amplified by social media disinformation. America returned to the age-old conflict of emancipation or subjugation of Black Americans and adding other non-white people. And like many times before, this tyranny was wrapped in the flag and carrying the Christian cross.
That the Confederate battle flag, the symbol of the failed Lost Cause of 1860 is flown next to the Trump flags and banners is as self-evident as any branding Trump places on his properties. He and his militia followers are intent on fomenting a second civil war and came damn close to actually pulling it off on Jan. 6, 2021. However, this time, unlike with the aftermath of the Civil War, when Jefferson Davis who led the Confederacy was not prosecuted, the Union has to convict Trump and his co-conspirators and make sure they never, ever hold power again. It’s unfinished business.
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work, which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” —A. Lincoln, 16th president at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863
(James Preston Allen, founding publisher of the Los Angeles Harbor Areas Leading Independent Newspaper 1979- to present, is a journalist, visionary, artist and activist. Over the years Allen has championed many causes through his newspaper using his wit, common sense writing and community organizing to challenge some of the most entrenched political adversaries, powerful government agencies and corporations.)