One hundred fifty years ago this month, Abraham Lincoln died, leaving an heroic legacy of tolerance and sacrifice for an exceptional American idealism — that all persons are created equal.
But inequalities remain for too many African-Americans, inequalities that began with the slavery overthrown 150 years ago by Lincoln and millions of his fellow white Americans.
Time magazine’s current cover screams out the contemporary slogan: “Black Lives Matter.” But behind the failures of compassionate policing is a grim reality: African-American men are disproportionately engaged in crime and thus subject to criminal justice proceedings and incarceration.
Median net worth for African-American families in 2013 was $11,000. For white families it was $141,900.
In Minneapolis (as elsewhere) African-American schoolchildren collectively do worse than students from other ethnic traditions, including very recent Somali immigrant families.
The challenges facing many African-American families seem intractable, more severe than those facing other Americans.
But the tactics of protest — marches and demands for new laws — that characterized the winning of legal equality for African-Americans are not very relevant to today’s challenges.
Protests against alleged white bias won’t raise levels of academic achievement for African-American students. Protests against racism among police won’t lower average crime rates for African-American males.
The days of making progress through protest are over. The time for making progress through other means has arrived.
Lincoln would not be surprised at this. In his Second Inaugural Address, delivered that spring 150 years ago, he laid out for us the moral case for self-reliance in seeking justice.
Lincoln assumed that the slaves were of dignity equal to all others. He found it incredible that anyone should dare “to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Lincoln’s public promise to give legal equality to former slaves apparently triggered John Wilkes Booth’s racist passion to kill him quickly.
Lincoln could have blamed the Southern slavocracy and anti-African prejudice for the Civil War and its hundreds of thousands of Union dead, but he did not. He could have described loyal Americans and Americans of racial goodwill as victims of evil and deserving revenge. He could have placed all responsibility for the war and for slavery on others.
But he did not.
He turned to an unusual and profound Christian humility to move victors and vanquished alike beyond past evils and wrongs. He deferred judgment to the purposes of the Almighty which had finally come to will the end of slavery, even if each drop of blood drawn with the lash was to be requited with another drawn by the sword.
When the fighting was done, the necessary price would have been paid, Lincoln affirmed. The country, redeemed from evil, could go on its way down to our time without need for further revenge or retribution — with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”
As Julia Ward Howe had written in a verse of her song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as Christ had died to make men holy, her generation of Americans had to die to make them free. Blood spilled for justice was redemptive for the entire nation.
Today, what Lincoln intended — legal equality for all — has come to be.
In the 50 years since the march from Selma and the voting rights act of 1965, which followed Lyndon Johnson’s successful call for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, much has changed in the opportunities generally available to Americans of all races. Even in the nonlegal realms of cultural, social and economic power, the heft of white racism is now hardly even a paper-thin shadow of its former self.
In today’s America, Lincoln’s advice still holds good: A better future is up to each of us. We are the makers of good in the world and not simply its necessary victims.
Said Lincoln: But let us not judge others that we may not be judged.
The way forward truly is to have malice toward none and to offer charity for all, to individually to do right as we are given to see the right by principles and insights that rise above our human misunderstandings, prejudices, and narcissistic self-seekings.
For African-Americans today facing educational hurdles in public schools and living in close familiarity with criminal temptations and lifestyles, Lincoln’s magnanimity would advise first and foremost doing what is right and avoiding making oneself a means by which offenses enter the world.
Avoiding malice implies having no malice toward oneself, giving oneself hope and courage.
And, similarly, having charity for all includes having charity for oneself, giving oneself the inner spirit of resilience and the will to overcome the offenses that have come into the world through others.
For Lincoln, the way forward to full equality for all must draw upon a secular spirituality uplifting each and every one of us to do our level best.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.