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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But in some circles, "Honest Abe" is increasingly becoming Racist Abe.
Questions over Lincoln's racial views have intensified over the years as historians, activists, and politicians question how Lincoln regarded Black people and Native Americans.
Lincoln's racial views also have been the subject of recent protests. Protesters in Portland recently vandalized a statue of Lincoln, while another statue was recently removed from a Boston park because some thought its depiction of Lincoln standing over a bent freed slave was demeaning.
And earlier this year, a school board in San Francisco voted to change the name of a school named after Lincoln because of his treatment of Native Americans. The school district has since paused the school renaming process after a public backlash.
"Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through policy or rhetoric that Black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as casualties of wealth building," said Jeremiah Jeffries, chairman of the school board's renaming committee.
Historian and author David Blight: "He (Lincoln) had a moral core that he applied to both his political and social life."
But Jeffries' interpretation of Lincoln's racial views reflects our contemporary tendency to see racism as an either/or proposition: You're either a racist or a not. Lincoln was something else, and many still haven't caught up with the enigmatic man who David Blight, a leading Lincoln historian, calls "a creature of contradictions and ambiguities."

Why some say Lincoln was a racist

At first glance, the evidence is damning.
Lincoln used the N-word and told racist jokes. He once said that Black people were inferior to Whites and he liked minstrel shows. He proposed ending slavery by shipping willing Black people back to Africa.
Lincoln also once floated an offer to the Confederates that would allow them to keep slaves until 1900 if they surrendered, according to a PBS film called "The Abolitionists." And at one White House meeting with Black ministers, Lincoln virtually blamed slaves for starting the Civil War.
If some of Lincoln's public utterances about Blacks were retweeted today, he would have been canceled on social media and likely run out of office.
The controversial Emancipation Memorial on Capitol Hill in Washington. Some say its depiction of Lincoln looming over a slave is demeaning. The statue is protected by a fence to keep out protesters.
During one of his famed senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln said:
"There is a physical difference between the White and Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality."
But Lincoln's actions must be viewed in historical context, scholars say.
Some of Lincoln's views about Black people reflect the era he lived in, says Stacy Pratt McDermott, a former associate editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project, an organization based in Springfield, Illinois, that collects all of Lincoln's documents.
"Basically, every White person in antebellum America is a racist," McDermott says. "The whole system is set up for racism. There is an economic system of slavery that relies on people believing that Black people are inferior. Black people don't have legal standing. Even many radical abolitionists, who were heroes of mine, did not believe that Black people were equal."

Why some say Lincoln wasn't a racist

Yet McDermott does not call Lincoln a racist. She says he never displayed the visceral dislike of Black people that was the norm during his era. Lincoln saw Black clients in his law practice.
Other historians have talked about how comfortable Lincoln seemed around Black people, treating them as equals, shaking their hands, and answering letters from Black soldiers seeking help during the Civil War.
Lincoln was the first President to invite African Americans in number to the White House. He often greeted them "with open arms and an outstretched hand," Jonathan W. White wrote in a recent essay on Lincoln entitled, "Black Lives Certainly Mattered to Abraham Lincoln."
Frederick Douglass, the 19th century abolitionist, reformer and champion of women's suffrage. He and Lincoln were friends.
There is also the well-known story of how Lincoln, as a young man, stumbled upon a slave auction in New Orleans and watched with disgust as bidders pinched the flesh of a Black woman and made her trot like a horse to test her fitness. Lincoln reportedly said to a friend regarding slavery: "If ever I get a chance to hit that thing [slavery], I'll hit it hard."
"During his entire life, Lincoln believed that African Americans were his fellow human beings - - that in itself set him apart," says McDermott, author of "The Jury in Lincoln's America."
Some historians also cite Lincoln's friendship with the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the leading Black figure of his time, as proof that calling Lincoln a racist is simplistic. Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House at least three times -- once ushering him inside past a line of visitors, even though he'd arrived without an appointment -- episodes that are sprinkled throughout countless history books.
"He saw the two of them as kindred spirits," says Foner, author of