Did Black lives matter to Abraham Lincoln? It's complicated

Updated 9:42 AM ET, Sun March 14, 2021

Watch "Lincoln: Divided We Stand," a six-part original series examining the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on CNN.

(CNN)Abraham Lincoln was clinically depressed. Some say he was gay. He guest-starred on a "Star Trek" episode and became a vampire slayer.

Which of these four depictions of Lincoln are true?
All of them, if you believe how Lincoln has been portrayed by some historians and in pop culture. The Great Emancipator has become the great shape-shifter -- his image has been twisted like licorice to fit all sorts of agendas. He's become a pop icon who has been depicted in "South Park," on "Robot Chicken" and in a Geico insurance ad. Scholars offer wildly different theories about everything from Lincoln's mental health to his romantic proclivities.
But there is one image of Lincoln, examined in a new CNN documentary series, "Lincoln: Divided We Stand," that every serious student of his legacy must eventually address:
Was Lincoln a racist?
That question is another vestige of the Civil War that some Americans are still fighting today.
"I have never called Lincoln a racist," says Eric Foner, one of the nation's preeminent historians on Lincoln and the Civil War.
"He shared some of the prejudices of his time. Was Lincoln an anti-racist? No not really. Was he an egalitarian in the modern sense? No. Race was not a major concern of Lincoln. He didn't think about race about very much. To ask if he's a racist is the wrong question. And if you ask the wrong question, you're going to get the wrong answer."

Lincoln's legacy is complex and evolving

On one hand, Lincoln's place in US history feels secure. Historians routinely rank him as the greatest American president. Republicans call themselves "The Party of Lincoln," while Democrats claim him as one of their own. No other former President has such a mythical hold on popular imagination. We still quote lines from Lincoln speeches such as "a new birth of freedom" or "With malice toward none; with charity for all."
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