150 years after the assassination, when will we recover from Lincoln’s death?

How long does it take a nation to recover from the assassination of its president? 50 years? 100 years? 150?

At the time of his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln was directly engaged in what could be considered the second-greatest political challenge of his presidency: the reunification of the United States in the immediate aftermath of a Civil War that had claimed more than 700,000 lives.

No American family was left untouched by the carnage. The plans for Reconstruction were doomed from the start. Confederate sympathizers were defeated, angry and busy developing new systems of restriction and oppression for the recently manumitted Africans in America, even as they wrestled with the destruction of infrastructure across huge swaths of the South.

Into that mix add an actor, John Wilkes Booth, known for his dramatic flair, who was a Confederate sympathizer — meaning he did not want slavery to end. Stir in a group of co-conspirators hell-bent on anarchy. Especially if anarchy could somehow return the South to its pre-Civil War form.

Although historians have teased out the complexities of the Civil War — regionalism, states’ rights versus federalism, paradigmatic shifts in the economy — slavery and its requisite dehumanization of black folks were both central to ideological battles during the war and a sticking point in the immediate aftermath of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to the Union.

One of Lincoln’s prerogatives before, during and for the bit of time he lived after the Civil War was to challenge the nation to acknowledge black humanity.

He didn’t quite frame it that way, but Lincoln wanted black lives to matter as a matter of national policy. He was willing to stake his legacy on the point, and we could argue that his life was taken at least in part because of his commitment to an early iteration of today’s “black lives matter” movement. I am fully aware that both Lincoln historians and the architects and activists of the movement will read this assertion as blasphemy.

So, how long does it take for a nation to recover from the assassination of one of its presidents? The question may be unanswerable.

But to the extent that Lincoln as president was invested in pressing our nation to grasp the humanity of black folks — and given the fact that the GOP’s “Southern strategy” to gain the votes of disgruntled white Southerners still exists, combined with  the withering effects of mass incarceration of people of color — Lincoln’s work remains unfinished some 150 years later.

It remains unclear whether or not the United States has or ever will recover from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The emergence of neo-liberalism, our permanent war footing and the slow rollback of the civil rights agenda of the 1960s suggest that the Kennedy brand of presidential leadership would have been critical to strengthening America’s commitment to social justice in the era of globalization.

Will America ever recover from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts one of the greatest Americans who ever lived?

Though we, as a nation, have done our due diligence to memorialize Lincoln, Kennedy and King, their absences seem eerily pronounced in the 21st century. For so many of the social justice issues that these leaders were deeply invested in continue to plague our great nation.

The permanence of our nation’s greatest challenges: war and institutional racism becomes less and less debatable as the centuries go by. The United States has been at war — hot, cold or clandestine — since the Kennedy administration. And thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court and a host of state legislatures, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act have been systematically sapped of their legal and political strength.

In an 1858 “Fragment on Democracy,” Lincoln stated: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master . . .“ He claimed this dialectic frame as the very “idea of democracy” — the idea being that being a “master” can be as dehumanizing as being a “slave.” As long as men and women were conscripted in bondage, the United States could not be all that it posited itself to be.

American slavery emptied the concept of liberty of any absolute meaning. The concept of U.S. freedom instead relied exclusively on the notion of not being in bondage or its direct analogy of not being black/African/Negro/African-American.

In the 21st century, we have arrived at a moment when looking back is sometimes better than looking forward. Too often our contemporary politicos cite the great leaders of bygone eras without any inclination to model their courage or their incisive interventions into the American project. Lincoln’s life and legacy unfortunately fall victim to such appropriations.

We would be better served at this 150th commemoration of Lincoln’s assassination to come to terms with the significance of his actual political work as opposed to reveling in our celebratory fascination of time stamps and political platitudes.

James Peterson is director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh University.

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