From Lincoln to King to Obama

“Complicated Legacies” event explores narratives that influence historical understanding.

January 30, 2013

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From left to right: Edna Medford, Eddie Glaude and Eric Foner during a discussion on Jan. 28.

In a discussion that ranged from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in March 1865 to President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address last week, “Complicated Legacies: Lincoln, King and Obama” explored the way we talk about and remember historical events.

The event, presented by the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion on Jan. 28, served as both a celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the kickoff of George Washington University’s yearlong ProClaiming Freedom Initiative, a series of discussions and events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

Panelists included Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University; Eddie Glaude, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University; and Edna Medford, professor and chair of the history department at Howard University.

“The great men and significant milestones… are part of a complex effort to realize the ideals of democracy,” said Terri Harris Reed, GW’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion. Dr. Reed said the yearlong series of events would be a “journey, as we uncover, recover and discover the stories of a nation and its people seeking to fill its promises, dreams and hopes for freedom and equality.”

The panelists discussed the legacies of President Lincoln and Dr. King and how we talk about these famous figures today, as well as the narrative of “freedom,” which has been part of every significant American struggle.

“I like to think of freedom as a practice, not as an end or an achievement,” Dr. Glaude said. “Freedom is in constant need of renewal. Whenever we find it in some ways, its opposite is always close by.”

Dr. Foner noted that while the concept of freedom has been central to American political thought since our inception as a nation, it has meant very different things over time. At the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, President Lincoln did not necessarily believe that slaves deserved equality with whites. Dr. Medford said Lincoln’s definition of freedom was quite different from how enslaved people saw it.

“[Lincoln] believed everyone should be entitled to improve themselves. That was his definition of freedom,” she said. “Enslaved people saw it as much different—they saw it as equality of opportunity, having the same rights as other Americans. We were released from slavery but did not receive the same rights immediately, and some would argue that we still are not there.”

The panelists agreed that no one benefits when significant events in history are simplified to fit a narrow narrative.

It would be wrong to recall the Emancipation Proclamation or the March on Washington as simply “a feel-good story of greater and greater freedom,” Dr. Foner said.

Dr. Medford said people often subscribe to this type of simplified historical narrative because it helps them feel less guilty about unethical things that Americans did in the past.

“We need to remind ourselves that history is about interpretation, how we view the world—not just a collection of facts,” she said. “It reflects our values, and we’re very vulnerable and emotional when recalling our history. If you have a figure like Lincoln who supposedly freed the slaves with the stroke of a pen without any  help from the slaves themselves, or abolitionists, or Congress….if we can embrace that view of history, we have saved ourselves from the burden of having abused and exploited people.”

The panelists discussed President Obama’s reelection and what he might be able to learn from history. They compared both presidents’ second inaugural addresses, emphasizing how President Lincoln’s speech adopted the rhetoric that abolitionists had been using for years, while President Obama included references to the struggle for gay rights for the first time, adopting language that had been used by gay rights activists for decades.

Dr. Foner pointed out that President Obama’s speech, however, didn’t mention the struggles that disadvantaged groups still face.

“It fits into this ‘onwards and upwards’ story,” he said. “There wasn’t much about the disabilities these groups—women, African Americans, gays—still face. It makes it seem like we’ve overcome.”

Dr. Medford said she felt strongly that President Obama’s reelection was more important that his initial election, because it proved that the election of a black president was not a fluke. And our society won’t be truly colorblind, she said, until we elect an African American president who is as bad as some of America’s past presidents—not just someone who is bright and had many achievements before entering the White House, like President Obama.

Dr. Glaude concluded  by noting that Dr. King took his activism out of the domestic sphere and into the international sphere with his criticism of the Vietnam War and its connections to racism, militarism and capitalism.

“What would King say about drones?” he asked. “Part of what we’re trying to do is see how the narratives we tell ourselves… orient us toward our policies, our lives and the folks we ought to care about around the world.”

More information about the ProClaiming Freedom Initiative is available online.