Abraham Lincoln on Ferguson

CaptureI recently picked up a book at a thrift store on the Upper West Side called “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly” by Jennifer Fleischner for a cool $2.00. The book is a dual biography that goes between the lives of Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly. The former being the wife of our 16th President and the latter being a freed black woman who became close to the Lincolns as a caretaker and dressmaker. The book is good, I definitely recommend it to any history or Lincoln fans, but there was one part that caught my eye in relation to current events, specifically the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

As you may or may not  should know, the conversation on race relations in America has flared up again after 18-year-old Ferguson resident, Michael Brown, was shot by police. Missouri has a long and fraught record when it comes to the treatment of African-Americans that goes back hundreds of years. Take 1847, the year Elizabeth Keckly arrived in St. Louis, Missouri. By this year, the state assembly had passed laws “outlawing schools ‘for the instruction of negroes and mulattoes in reading or writing'”, preventing free (and presumably better educated) blacks from entering the state, and barring all forms of assembly. On top of all this, the slave trade was extremely present in St. Louis with slave traders being “noted for…barbarity” by a mixed-race slave named William Wells Brown, who would later become an antislavery activist and writer.

Over ten years before even this period, there was an incident that had the entire nation watching St. Louis and it was still able to cause arguments decades later:

In 1835, a white mob seized and lynched a free mulatto, Francis McIntosh, who was in jail for murdering the sheriff and injuring a guard. After Judge Luke E. Lawless directed a grand jury to decide against trying any of the accused citizens on the grounds that it was impossible to try a “multitude,” another mob destroyed the printing press of Elijah Lovejoy’s St. Louis Observer for its account of the lynching and grand jury decision. Lovejoy moved his newspaper to Alton, Illinois but in November 1837, was killed by a mob while defending his printing press. Those who sympathized with the lynchers “described McIntosh as a defiant killer” and praised “the heroic actions of the men who apprehended him and the collective action of the community in killing him.” On the other side were those who agreed with Lovejoy that this was an example of “mob violence that threatened the foundation of law and civilized society.” (Fleischner 128)

A man on the “other side” was Illinois State Representative Abraham Lincoln who gave a speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield in 1838. He cited the Lawless court decision and subsequent attack on Lovejoy as an example of the perils of mob rule and its danger to well functioning government. In addition to the McIntosh lynching, there was an another incident in 1841 that involved four black men killing two white men, robbing the building, and then burning it down.

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Both memories, among countless others, have likely stayed with St. Louisians for generations. It is through this collective subconscious lens that has undoubtably colored reactions to the Michael Brown shooting by white and black people both in St. Louis and nationwide. Reading President Obama’s statement on Ferguson, it is not hard to see the correlation with Lincoln’s speech at the Lyceum:

We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances. He was 18 years old, and his family will never hold Michael in their arms again. And when something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities. There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.

Though the consensus largely seems to be that what happened in Ferguson between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson was not right, there remains deep divides in opinions and largely across racial lines. Many white Americans are supporting Officer Wilson with donations and many black Americans protesting in social media and on the streets. Most of the controversy has predictably died off with the media turning its attentions to ISIS, Ukraine, and the suddenly surprising bout of personal problems in the NFL. What happened to Michael Brown will happen again, which is unfortunate, but as long as we can begin to learn from it and situations like it, then we’ll be better off as people. The parallel between President’s Lincoln and Obama can be discouraging though. How can stuff like this still be happening over 150 years later? But seeing the good changes and knowing that the causes have deep roots is something that will undoubtedly help us to move forward. We can not afford to forget the past.

Other reading on Ferguson:
What the numbers coming out of Ferguson say, and who is saying it best – CJR
Juan Williams: Ferguson and America’s Racial Fears – WSJ
Everything That Went Wrong in Ferguson – Slate
12 things white people can do now because Ferguson – Quartz
@ShaunKing exposes Ferguson PD lie about distance from SUV – Storify

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