The work of popular historian Lerone Bennett Jr. falls within a longer ‘anti-Lincoln tradition’ of African American intellectual thought–a tradition perhaps most explosively articulated through Bennett’s Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. Although it was published twenty years ago, the book remains a valuable contribution to African American life and culture. It’s especially relevant today in the context of the recent uprisings. As Black Lives Matter activists have taken to the streets, protests against police brutality have overlapped with demands that statues of Lincoln – most notably the Freedman’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. – be taken down. Forced Into Glory offers a literary complement to the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists to look at Lincoln’s statues, legacy, and, American history, through a new lens.
Bennett’s interest in Lincoln’s racial attitudes – something which the historian himself traces back to his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi – first gained national attention following the publication of his February 1968 article “Was Abe Lincoln A White Supremacist?” in Ebony. Bennett left readers with little ambiguity over his perspective, forcefully arguing that ‘no American story is so false’ as that of the ‘Great Emancipator’, and that, on issues ranging from colonization to emancipation, Lincoln was ‘the very essence of the white supremacist with good intentions.’
The public uproar engendered by the article’s publication vaulted Bennett to national prominence and strengthened his desire to complete a book-length treatise on Lincoln’s racial attitudes. In his later preface to Forced Into Glory, Bennett contends that he had a ‘book-sized draft’ even prior to his Ebony article, and correspondence in his archives at Emory and Chicago State indicate that he was hard at work revising the project by the summer of 1968. A myriad of factors, including Bennett’s ever-expanding responsibilities within and beyond Johnson Publishing Company, health concerns, and his desire to get the book ‘right’, saw the project repeatedly delayed. However, by the mid-1990s Bennett finally had something close to a final draft, as well as a working title – Whipped Into Glory – which conjured provocative images of enslavement. By the time that the text hit the shelves in 2000, its title had changed to Forced Into Glory, although this did little to obscure Bennett’s core argument or the continuities between his 1968 article and book-length work.
Brian Dirck has characterized Forced Into Glory as an ‘exhaustive cataloguing of Lincoln’s racial sins’, and it is hard to argue with this assessment.1 Beginning with an opening vignette of Lincoln’s telling a racist joke following his victory in the 1860 presidential campaign, and continuing across more than 600 pages, Bennett relentlessly assailed Lincoln’s racial prejudices and antiblack attitudes. His central premise was most concisely laid out on the book’s dust jacket: “EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT LINCOLN AND RACE IS WRONG…The real Lincoln was a conservative politician who said repeatedly that he believed in White supremacy. Not only that: he opposed the basic principle of the Emancipation Proclamation until his death.”2 Bennett’s blanket condemnation of Lincoln set his work apart from that of earlier Black critics such as W.E.B Du Bois, who, even as they catalogued Lincoln’s flaws, praised him as a ‘brave man’ and a ‘prince of men.’ In Lincoln, Bennett saw very little that was worthy of praise.
If the reaction to “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” provided a window into the fraught racial politics of 1968, then early responses to the release of Forced Into Glory offered a similarly telling insight into American culture and scholarship at the turn of the twentieth century. In contrast to the uproar generated by his Ebony article, Bennett contends that Forced Into Glory was initially shunned by the nation’s media and scholarly establishment. While Bennett’s suggestion of a ‘conspiracy of silence’ should be met with caution, this trend was commented upon by other figures such as Time contributor Jack White, who saw it as ‘an indisputable fact that Glory – one of the most important reassessments of Lincoln, or any other white figure of similar stature, by a black author – is not getting the kind of attention that nonfiction works by white authors have received.’
When Forced Into Glory did begin to generate interest, it was party to predictable backlash by many Lincoln scholars and historians of the Civil War era. One of the most widely circulated reviews came from Princeton University professor James McPherson, who bemoaned the book’s ‘crucial flaws’ and argued that ‘Bennett gets more wrong than he gets right.’ Perhaps the most biting early review came from political scientist Lucas Morel, who declared that ‘the only way to misrepresent Lincoln more would be to misspell his name, and warned readers that Bennett’s ‘diatribe becomes almost impossible to take seriously.’ The tone of such critiques embodied an educational elitism which suggested that ‘popular’ historians – particularly nonwhite popular historians – were unable to sustain the necessary rigors of ‘academic’ history. This was directed towards distortions of fact (although it is important to note that McPherson, despite his best efforts, struggled to find many), and distortions in interpretation, with ‘lay’ historians such as Bennett seen as unwilling to grapple with the ‘nuances’ or ‘complexities’ of academic scholarship. Some scholars appeared to take the text personally, with perennial Lincoln defender Allan Guelzo so upset by Bennett’s ‘vast anti-Lincoln screed’ that he immediately began work on a rebuttal.
Yet by focusing on the tone of Forced Into Glory, scholars such as Morel missed the broader implications of Bennett’s work. In a more measured review of Bennett’s work, Eric Foner criticized Forced Into Glory as ‘repetitious, full of irrelevant detours, and relentlessly polemical’, but also contended that it ‘deserves attention, for it contains insights into Lincoln’s era and the ways historians have treated the sixteenth president.’ Foner’s remarks point towards a secondary but often overlooked function of Forced Into Glory – not only as a challenge to Lincoln’s reputation as the ‘Great Emancipator’, but as a challenge to his continued veneration by large swathes of the scholarly establishment. In one of the book’s most revealing passages, Bennett declared that ‘Lincoln is theology, not historiology…he is a religion, and he has his own priests and acolytes, most of whom have a vested interest in “the great emancipator.”’ Even as they have continued to criticize Bennett’s work, more recent scholars have acknowledged that ‘mainstream historians’ have long skewed historical data to support their view that Lincoln was ‘a proponent of black equality’, and have taken their cue from Forced Into Glory to more closely examine the so-called ‘Lincoln industry.’
It is also striking that many of the most sympathetic analyses of Forced Into Glory have come from Black scholars, indicating a greater willingness to grapple with the hard questions at the center of Bennett’s work than that of the president’s many (and, not coincidentally, largely) white defenders. Henry Louis Gates, while careful to not completely align himself with Bennett’s perspective, has applauded his ‘searching critiques’ of Lincoln and taken care to situate them within a broader spectrum on Black thought that incorporates the ‘bitter denunciations of Malcolm X’ as well as the ‘untroubled adoration’ of Booker T. Washington and the ‘more nuanced yet strongly favorable assessment of Barack Obama.’ Reflecting on the text’s publication in 2006, Gerald Horne mused that historians ‘may very well conclude that Bennett’s “mistake” was simply being too premature in his perspicacity in not adhering to the teleological model that sees enslaved Africans marching in an uncomplicated path to freedom in the U.S.’3
It is in through this effort to disrupt familiar and comfortable narratives of Lincoln – to disrupt the ‘teleological model’ of Black advancement from slavery to freedom – that Forced Into Glory offers its most lasting contribution; a contribution that, against the backdrop of ongoing calls for a wholesale reevaluation of American history and some of the nation’s most iconic figures, has never been more timely.