Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln

As I have noted before, I am in the process of getting my Master’s degree in American History. Slowly but surely, I’m getting closer to being an actual historian rather than just an elementary school teacher who knows a bit about Lincoln’s assassination. My most recent class was titled The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and it was taught by Dr. Peniel Joseph who is pictured above. Dr. Joseph is the author of a new dual biography of X and King titled, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. This was one of the main texts we used in the course and I highly recommend this book for anyone looking to learn more about these two hugely influential figures in the Civil Rights movement.

As the course progressed, I found myself fascinated by the life story of Malcolm X, a man that I sadly knew very little about. Due to this, I ended up writing most of my papers and discussion posts about this “sword” of a man who was active during the heroic period of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Early on, I decided that my final paper for the class would somehow revolve around Malcolm X. I’m always trying to connect my different classes to aspects of Lincoln’s assassination and while I could have written a comparative piece about Malcolm X’s own assassination, the details of that killing are too unclear and still too recent to be fully understood. In the end, I decided to explore how Malcolm X used the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in his own activism. Many pieces have been written comparing Martin Luther King’s use of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy and words, yet I was not able to find any detailed account of how Malcolm X related to Lincoln. What follows is my analysis of Malcolm X’s often controversial relationship with the legacy of the 16th President.

I do not claim to be an expert on Malcolm X (nor Abraham Lincoln for that matter), so please forgive any egregious errors you may come across. I have tried my best to accurately portray Malcolm X and his views, but I am well aware that I am incapable of truly understanding the lived experiences and struggles of a Black man in 1960s America (and today). At the very least, I hope that this paper may motivate some of you to learn more about Malcolm X and his massive impact on the ongoing fight for Civil Rights.

Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln

By Dave Taylor

In 1964, author Robert Penn Warren was in the process of collecting material for an upcoming book entitled, Who Speaks for the Negro? The volume was Warren’s attempt to learn more about the ongoing Civil Rights movement and those on the ground working to promote equality and fairness for all Americans. During his research, Warren met with many activists and leaders of the movement. On June 2, Warren found himself interviewing the noted firebrand, Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little. Warren asked the 39-year-old his opinions of politicians, living and dead. Never one to mince his words, Malcolm X spoke honestly of the many ways in which politicians and his fellow Civil Rights leaders had failed the Black community time and time again. Warren then posed the question, “What do you think of Abraham Lincoln?” Malcolm X replied, “I think that he probably did more to trick Negroes than any other man in history.”[1] As one of the most celebrated presidents in American history, often referred to after his death as The Great Emancipator, this harsh generalization of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy in regard to race was a shocking statement. While other Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. often sought out the words and legacy of Abraham Lincoln in their unifying messages, Malcolm X provided an almost startling contrast, actively calling out and challenging the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, a man considered by many white and Black Americans as an untouchable martyr for liberty. By analyzing the few other times that Malcolm X’s views on Abraham Lincoln were recorded and by doing an exploration into the source of Malcolm X’s education on the 16th President, it becomes clear that X’s criticisms of Lincoln were the product of valid historical inquiry. In addition, there is strong evidence to support the idea that Malcolm X embraced the idea of creating controversy over Lincoln’s legacy as a means of promoting his own views of Black self-determination and autonomy.

Just a few months prior to Warren’s interview with him, Malcolm X had been a high-ranking member of the Nation of Islam (NOI). However, X’s increased devotion to political matters and his internal conflicts with the NOI’s religious leader, Elijah Muhammad, had caused X’s ousting from the organization. Yet his dismissal from the Nation of Islam had done little to impede X’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Rather, it unshackled him in many ways to be more open with his views as he no longer had to worry about whether they conflicted in anyway with the NOI’s teachings. Warren’s interview with X, dealt mostly with the role and viewpoints of Black Muslims in regards to the greater Civil Rights movement. Though removed from the NOI, X was still a devote Muslim, having converted to the Sunni faith. Warren pressed Malcolm to talk more about the non-violence movement endorsed by other members of the Civil Rights movement like Dr. King. This interview came just a few months after Malcolm X delivered one of his most famous speeches, The Ballot or the Bullet, in which he supported the power of voting in order to enact change, but also warned that Black Americans were tired of having to “turn the other cheek” while their rights and lives were threatened. The Ballot or the Bullet was a clarion call to all Black Americans that appeasement towards white supremacy was to stop, one way or the other.

While many of X’s answers to Warren’s questions did not end up making it into Warren’s finished product, the line about Abraham Lincoln having “tricked the Black man” did. In 1985, over twenty years after this interview, Black historian John Hope Franklin took exception to X’s categorization of Lincoln writing in his essay, “The Use and Misuse of the Lincoln Legacy” that X was, “not at all clear on what the trick was.”[2] Yet, perhaps unknown to Franklin was the fact that X had expanded on his thoughts regarding Lincoln during his interview with Warren and it was Warren who failed to include this additional material in his book. In continuing his explanation of how Lincoln had tricked the Black Americans, X stated:

“He was interested in saving the Union. Well, more Negroes have been tricked into thinking that Lincoln was a Negro lover whose primary aim was to free them and he died because he freed them. I think Lincoln did more to deceive the Negroes and to make the race problem in this country worse than any man in history.”[3]

From this extended response it is clear that Malcolm X put forth some supporting evidence for his view that Lincoln had tricked Black people. For Malcolm, Abraham Lincoln had unjustly been given the role as a white savior to the Black race. Malcolm was engaging in a form of historical analysis by actively questioning whether the veneration Lincoln had received in the period since his death was based on the actions and views of the man, or the mythology that had formed around him. While this off the cuff remark to Warren helps lay the groundwork of his views, additional sources help to define Malcolm X’s analysis further.

Malcolm X’s interview with Robert Penn Warren was not the first (nor the last) recorded example of his views on Abraham Lincoln. A few months earlier, at the end of February, 1964, Malcolm X was in Miami acting as a spiritual advisor of sorts to one of the Nation of Islam’s most high profile converts, Cassius Clay, soon to rename himself Muhammad Ali.

Malcolm X was already in the process of being pushed out of the Nation of Islam at this point but still had hopes that his service in helping to convert Clay would put him back into good graces with Elijah Muhammad. In the hours leading up to Clay’s famous bout with Sonny Liston, where Clay would become one of the youngest heavyweight champions ever, Malcolm X sat at a lunch table with sports journalist George Plimpton who found himself fascinated by X. Plimpton asked many questions to X about Islam, Clay’s conversion, and the overall condition of Black Americans. Plimpton got onto the topic of X’s ongoing troubles with the Nation of Islam, which X claimed were due to remarks about the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy which the NOI deemed in poor taste. But Malcolm did not believe he was wrong in stating that Kennedy had not been a friend to Black Americans. He reminded Plimpton that Kennedy was, above all, “a cold-blooded politician,” and that, “there never had been a politician who was the Negro’s friend.”[4] In Plimpton’s recollections of the discussion, which were published in Harper’s Magazine in June of that year, X then started began talking about Abraham Lincoln stating, “Lincoln? A crooked, deceitful hypocrite, claiming championship to the cause of the Negro who, one hundred years later, finds himself singing, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”[5] Like his later comments to Warren, Malcolm X expresses his frustration at the disparity he feels exists between Lincoln the man and Lincoln the legacy. While, on the face of it, Malcolm’s words may seem like – to use the vernacular of boxing – a sucker punch to Abraham Lincoln, his harsh words stem from legitimate criticisms on Lincoln views and policies on race.

The best source we have for understanding Malcolm X’s thought process on Abraham Lincoln comes from a recorded interview he did with a yet undetermined interviewer around 1960. A short, 29 second clip of what appears to be a televised interview can be found online. Narration starts the clip noting that the, “news media had begun to take notice” of Malcolm X,  before we see the interviewer hold out his microphone to X. While we do not know the exact phrasing of the interviewer’s question, the response makes it clear that Malcolm X was asked directly about Abraham Lincoln. Malcolm X then gives the following response:

“Abraham Lincoln tricked the so-called Negro into thinking that he was free and when you read some of the books that were written by the so-called Negro historian J. A. Rogers, one of his books Africa’s Gift to America, he points out plainly how Abraham Lincoln did nothing but trick the Negro, fool the Negro, and use the Negro the same as every other politician who has been in the White House has been tricking and fooling and using the Negro as a political football ever since America has been America.”[6]

This interview very much echoes Malcolm X’s words to George Plimpton in 1964 as the Civil Rights leader equates Lincoln to generations of politicians who have used and misused Black Americans for their own benefit. However, the key to this interview is that X provides the source of his material. He essentially advertises for the Black historian Joel A. Rogers, specifically mentioning his book, Africa’s Gift to America.

Joel Augustus Rogers was a groundbreaking Black historian who, “dedicated over fifty years of his life to writing about and debunking the fallacies of racist European and American scholarship that denied people of African descent had a history worth writing about.”[7] Among Roger’s numerous works were books and articles titled, “What are We, Negroes or Americans?”, “The Negro in European History”, World’s Greatest Men and Women of African Descent, “The Suppression of Negro History”, and the aforementioned Africa’s Gift to America: The Afro-American in the Making and Saving of the United States. This last volume was one of Roger’s final books, having been published originally in 1959 with an updated version coming out two years later in 1961. Joel Rogers was also a regular contributor to the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper of the day, in which he wrote a column entitled History Shows. Malcolm X had a long familiarity with Rogers. On January 1, 1959, Malcolm X invited Rogers to speak to over 1,600 Nation of Islam members at New York’s Temple No. 7, where he was the leader. While not a Muslim himself, Rogers spoke glowingly of the NOI and how its followers were educating themselves about their history. “Not only do they, themselves, want to learn, but they want to spread this knowledge to the rest of our people,” Rogers stated to Malcolm X’s audience.[8] Joel Rogers was one of the pioneers of what we would now refer to as African American Studies.

In many ways, Joel Rogers was a kindred spirit to Malcolm X. When asked about his writing on the topic of Black history, Rogers stated that his motivation stemmed from his, “early childhood when it was firmly impressed on me by the ruling class that black people were inherently inferior and that their sole purpose for being was to be servants to white people and the lighter-colored mulattoes.”[9] Rogers rejected the white supremacist doctrine of his youth that Blacks were inherently inferior to whites. Similarly, Malcolm X vividly recalled his own childhood memories of being called by racial epithets and being treated poorly by whites of all classes. Yet, like Rogers, Malcolm witnessed the inherent strength and promise of the Black race, even while a white supremacist society tried to keep him down. Malcolm had the benefit of having been born to activist parents and in his autobiography, Malcolm recalled being transfixed by meetings his father organized: “I remember how the meetings always closed with my father saying, several times, and the people chanting after him, ‘Up, you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will!”[10] It is no surprise then that Malcolm X was a firm proponent of Joel Rogers’ work. Rogers helped to provide Malcolm with a historical basis for the strength and self-dignity that Malcolm X knew Black people possessed, despite the attempts of white supremacy to deny them this heritage.

Therefore, to understand Malcolm X’s views on Abraham Lincoln, it is important to analyze the historiographical work of Joel Rogers on the subject. In Africa’s Gift to America, Roger heads the corresponding chapter on the Civil War as, “The Negro In the Saving of America” and this perfectly encapsulates his overall thesis. Rogers recalls the process of the Civil War and the struggles the Union had in gaining the upper hand over the Confederate states. When describing the Emancipation Proclamation, Rogers quickly dismisses the oft held idea that the true purpose of the decree was to end slavery. Rogers writes, “Did it free the slaves? Definitely not. It was a gesture rather than a reality since it ‘freed’ only those slaves Lincoln had no power to free and kept in slavery those he had the power to free.”[11] While other historians made find exception with Rogers’ directness and candor on this, he is not incorrect with his assessment of the direct effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. The order only claimed to free the slaves in the states then in rebellion, and had no effect on the enslaved people still held in bondage in the Union border states. Granted, it did result in the freeing of those held in bondage in Union occupied areas of the South, but direct emancipation as a result of the proclamation was very minimal. Rogers opines the mythology of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as having singlehandedly freed the slaves, writing, “Perhaps no other important document in all history has been more misinterpreted.”[12] Yet, Rogers does acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation was incredibly vital for the survival of the United States, for, while it did little to free those still held in bondage, it created a pathway for Black men to become part of the Union army and fight for the freedom of their brothers and sisters. Rogers spends most of the remaining chapter demonstrating how the tireless devotion and bravery of the newly formed United States Colored Troops helped the Union emerge victorious after four long years of fighting. Rogers recounts moments of both regimental and individual acts of selflessness and sacrifice on the part of Black soldiers even in the face of incredible adversity and racism on the part of white Confederate and Union citizens alike. Malcolm X no doubt appreciated and valued Rogers’ work in showing how men who were once enslaved themselves, fought and freed those still held in bondage.

While Rogers’ accounts of glory personified Malcolm X’s views on Black power, his critical assessment of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln also spoke to X’s distaste of white savior myths which disregarded Black autonomy and self-determination. In his efforts to bring the mighty image of Father Abraham off of his pedestal, Rogers spends a considerable amount of space in his book quoting Lincoln’s distasteful racial views. Rogers recalls how, in his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln stated, “there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”[13] For Rogers, this was evidence that the image of Abraham Lincoln as a benevolent friend of all Black people was misguided. Rogers also criticized the delayed nature of Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation after years of war. Since the beginning there had been the near constant call of abolitionists, both white and Black, asking for the chief executive to make it explicitly known that the cause of the war was to end slavery. From the abolitionists’ point of view, this was what the Confederate states had understood it to be when they seceded in the first place. Included in the Lincoln portion of Rogers’ book is a quote from Frederick Douglass. At the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1876, the famous Black abolitionist and orator recalled that Lincoln, “was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people in order to promote the welfare of the white people.”[14] When Rogers presented these quotes and wrote about Lincoln in Africa’s Gift to America, he was not breaking new ground in Lincoln research. Lincoln’s record on race relations and devotion to the preservation to the Union were well documented in other Lincoln texts of the day. One of the sources Joel Rogers uses for his book was the groundbreaking series by Carl Sandburg’s called Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. The first volume in this series contains a letter Lincoln wrote to abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley in 1862 in which the President stated:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”[15]

This assertion that the preservation of the Union was the first and foremost goal in Lincoln’s mind during the Civil War is also combined with Lincoln’s support, even during his time as President, for colonization movements. Believing that the different races could not live together in harmony, Lincoln proposed for Black Americans to be sent to Africa and establish colonies there. When told of this plan in person, Frederick Douglass and many others balked at the idea of being sent from their homeland to a continent they knew nothing of. In recounting Lincoln’s words and opinions on race, Joel Rogers makes a compelling argument that humanizes Lincoln as a complicated man which disassociates him from the otherwise held myth of Father Abraham, patron saint of the Black race.

Yet, even as Joel Rogers uses Lincoln’s own words to criticize the 16th President, the historian is not unfeeling or ignorant of the circumstances Lincoln found himself in. Rogers writes, “There is much I admire about Lincoln and I sympathize greatly with him for the many trying problems he had to face but in all fairness it must be said that he owed vastly more to the Negro than the Negro to him.”[16] As Rogers posited, it was the Black troops that helped to turn the tide of war in the Union’s favor. The increased manpower brought about by the enlistment of Black soldiers and the devotion with which they fought for the cause of freedom, saved Lincoln from suffering the fate as vanquished Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But, more importantly, Rogers defends his criticisms of Lincoln’s words and personal views even if it seems contrary to the popularly accepted interpretation of the Great Emancipator. Rogers writes, “Lincoln became the bible of the great Negrophobes.”[17] According to Rogers, Black Americans put too much stock in Lincoln the politician who only directly freed a miniscule amount of enslaved people in order to win a war. This mythology caught on so much that the power of Black Civil War soldiers was diminished so as to essentially remove them from the narrative. Black Americans were expected to bow and pay reverence to Lincoln for their freedom rather than acknowledge their own success. Perhaps this idea is personified best by the nature of the statue Frederick Douglass helped to unveil in 1876 which shows a formerly enslaved man kneeling at the feet of Lincoln who is beckoning him to stand up.

Joel Rogers and Malcolm X could both see the way in which this legacy of Abraham Lincoln could be weaponized against Black people. In his autobiography, Malcolm spoke of the way in which he worked to change the narrative in order to include the stories of Black strength completely independent of white savior imagery. There was a considerable backlash to Malcolm’s refusal to pay heed or enough reverence to the man the white press thought should be an icon to the Civil Rights leader. Malcolm recalled:

“I can remember those hot telephone sessions with those reporters as if they were yesterday. The reporters were angry. I was angry. When I’d reach into history, they’d try to pull me back to the present…They would unearth Lincoln and his freeing of the slaves. I’d tell them things Lincoln said in speeches, against the blacks.”[18]

It was in this way that Malcolm sought to engage his interviewers in the process of historical analysis but was met with anger due to his perceived disrespect for an American icon.

In August of 1963, many Civil Rights leaders and activists were busy preparing for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march would culminate at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. with Martin Luther King giving his now timeless, “I Have a Dream” speech. Malcolm X, the ever-reliable contrarian, took issue with the ways in which the planned march had been co-opted by the government. He stated that when the, “white man heard about this mass demonstration in the beginning which was to consist of sit-ins etc. on the White House lawn, airports and other public grounds, he decided to control it.”[19] A proponent of Black strength in the face of white supremacy, Malcolm regularly criticized the Civil Rights movement for failing to act in what he considered to be the proper, revolutionary way. He felt that King and other leaders spent too much time capitulating to white supremacists and their laws rather than actively fighting against them. At this point in his life, X did not see integration as a feasible or desired outcome. His lived experience as a Black man in America, his religious conversion to the Nation of Islam, and his readings from historians like Joel A. Rogers, had collectively taught him that white America would not accept true integration and social equality. Malcolm sought Black autonomy as a means of protection for his people. The hard lessons of life had trained him to be suspicious of most white people, especially those who claimed to be liberal minded and on the side of Civil Rights. Thus, King’s inclusion of white activists and leaders into the March on Washington was seen by X as a neutering element. X echoed this idea in the months after the March on Washington:

“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington.”[20]

Malcolm X’s compelling criticisms of the non-violence and non-confrontational nature of the march in response to acts of violence and discrimination against Black Americans was perfectly aligned to his overall opposition to Dr. King’s vision for the Civil Rights movement in general. Malcolm was tired of acquiescing any ground to white supremacists and those who supporting their agenda, whether knowingly or otherwise. He was tired of the strength and ability of Black people being ignored or diminished. For X, Civil Rights would only be gained when Black people actively rejected all forms of white supremacist indoctrination, including the internalized kind. By understanding this, it is easier to address why Malcolm X vehemently rejected what he believed to be a mythicized interpretation of Abraham Lincoln and his legacy.

In an Associated Press article that was published in newspapers around the country just two days before the March on Washington, X repeated his message charging that King was allowing the government to co-opt what should otherwise be a revolutionary act. He lamented that the march was now being, “controlled by the government and is being used for political expediency.”[21] However, this larger message was overshadowed in the press due to X’s decision to make mention of Abraham Lincoln and the fact that the march was to end at the Lincoln Memorial. Instead of headlines for the article highlighting the Civil Rights leader’s critique of outside influence on the march, many of the nation’s leading newspapers carried the article under headlines like, “Black Muslim Leader Knocks Lincoln’s Image”, “Lincoln No Hero, Malcolm X Insists”, and “Lincoln Didn’t Free Slaves – Malcolm X”. In Abraham Lincoln’s former hometown of Springfield, Illinois, the Illinois State Journal titled the story with “Abe Failed Negroes: Malcolm X”. The change of focus away from the march and onto Abraham Lincoln was due to X, once again, engaging in a form of historical analysis on Lincoln’s legacy. In the article Malcolm X stated:

“For all these Negro leaders to bring Negroes from all over the country and go down to a dead man’s statue, a dead president’s monument who was supposed to have issued an Emancipation Proclamation 100 years ago, and if what he had issued had any authenticity or sincerity and had gotten the job done this whole problem wouldn’t exist now.”[22]

By reading this quote closely, it appears that X was actually using Lincoln as a metaphor for the generational failures that prevented those freed from slavery from achieving any sort of equality in the century of so-called progress that followed. This criticism was as much a condemnation of X’s time as it was a shot across Lincoln’s bow. Malcolm X seemed to be challenging everyone to look at the world around them and decide whether the condition of Black Americans in his time could easily be rectified if Lincoln’s mythicized legacy of the white savior was to be believed. In this way, X was engaging in his common pattern of trying to get his audience to question long held and internalized views of white supremacy in order to help them find their own power.

When further pressed about his personal opinion of Lincoln, Malcolm stated, “I don’t think anyone who reads the true history of Lincoln, his motives, regards him as any hero.”[23] Malcolm is once again showing his acceptance of Joel Rogers’ thesis that Abraham Lincoln’s actions on behalf of African Americans was a result of political necessity rather than higher moral conviction. However, as noted above, even Rogers tended to give Lincoln a bit more sympathy and understanding than Malcolm X did in his public comments. Malcolm X, would not dispense any such sympathy with Lincoln, at least not publicly, because it wasn’t really Lincoln that Malcolm X was sparring against, but the way in which the legacy of Lincoln had been used to the benefit of white supremacy. By putting the end of slavery solely on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln, the contributions of others, namely the sacrifice of thousands of African American troops and the enslaved themselves, were dismissed and buried. Lincoln’s legacy as the Great Emancipator had been used against Malcolm X and his call for Black autonomy. Even though Lincoln had done well in helping to bring about the end of slavery, Malcolm X saw how the adulation of Lincoln could have a negative effect when it stripped Black Americans of knowledge of their own contributions and reinforced the idea that a white savior was needed for any significant change to their circumstances to happen.

Lincoln historians have long taken issue with Malcolm X’s criticisms of the 16th President. They acknowledge the truth contained in Rogers’ book in so far as Lincoln did express racial views that would not be acceptable today. They also acknowledge that Lincoln was, at one time, a proponent of the colonization movement which aimed to send Black Americans to Africa. However, most Lincoln historians will also be quick to point out that Lincoln was capable of great change and growth. Part of the reason Lincoln is admired in the way that he is, is due to the way he continually adapted to changing circumstances and evolved in his views. This was also true when it came to his views on race. This is evident in the last speech he gave from the balcony of the White House on April 11, 1865. In that speech, Lincoln discussed how the former Confederate states were to be allowed back into the Union. He discussed the new state Constitution of Louisiana, taking a moment to touch on the concept of Black suffrage. Lincoln stated, “It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”[24] While the enfranchisement solely of Black soldiers and those arbitrarily deemed “very intelligent” would not have satisfied Malcolm X, the gesture helps to demonstrate the evolution that X often denied Lincoln in his comments. It can be argued that Lincoln’s racial evolution contributed to his death as John Wilkes Booth was in the audience of that last speech and allegedly took such umbrage at the idea of Black citizenship that he then vowed to murder Lincoln. Still, while historians are quick to come to Abraham Lincoln’s defense with examples of Lincoln’s complexity and growth, it appears that few are willing to accord the same level of detail to understanding the context behind Malcolm X’s criticisms.

In a 2000 article by Eric Foner entitled, “Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist”, the noted historian lamented the “full scale assault on Lincoln’s reputation” by Black author Lerone Bennett who presented an updated version of Joel Rogers’ thesis. Foner provided the context for many of Lincoln’s more egregious racial comments and laid the groundwork to show Lincoln’s growth on racial issues. In this way, Foner falls in around Lincoln, helping to defend the 16th President’s legacy from what he believes are misguided misinterpretations of a far more complex individual. The Lincoln field is full of both professional and amateur historians, always ready to defend Lincoln’s legacy from any perceived slights. However, Foner should be noted for his likewise ability to analyze and engage with Malcolm X’s criticisms rather than tossing them aside. Foner becomes one of the few historians to provide Malcolm X with the same degree of understanding as scholars generally give Abraham Lincoln. Foner noted that, “In the early 1960s, Malcolm X urged blacks to ‘take down the picture’ of Lincoln – that is, to place their trust in their own efforts to secure racial justice rather than waiting for a new white emancipator.”[25] Unlike the press and white public in Malcolm X’s time, Foner acknowledged that Malcolm X’s criticisms of Lincoln were a product of his own lived experiences and activism.

From Malcolm X’s study of history, the widely held view that Abraham Lincoln was a true abolitionist with a lifelong devotion to the freedom and elevation of African Americans was at odds with the evidence shown in the historical record. While Lincoln’s actions did help bring about the end of slavery and such a step was crucial in the advancement of civil rights in the United States, Malcolm X took exception to the elevation of Abraham Lincoln above all others in the cause of abolition. Malcolm X observed that the veneration for Lincoln could sometimes produce toxic results as it overshadowed the acknowledgment of Black Americans who fought for their own freedom and future. Lincoln was also sometimes used against those in the Civil Rights movement as even white supremacists invoked Lincoln as a way of demanding obedience, as if Black Americans still owed the white race for Lincoln’s magnanimous actions a hundred years earlier. It was for all these reasons that Malcolm X rejected and spoke out against the mythicized Abraham Lincoln. He knowingly created controversy through his criticisms of Lincoln in order to reframe the discussion away from the century dead, white marble martyr seated in his shrine and towards the conditions Black citizens faced in the U.S. in the 1960s.

While he gave interviews to white reporters and authors, Malcolm X’s audience was always his Black brothers and sisters. When Malcolm X referenced Lincoln’s racist views, he did so to start conversations among Black Americans about their own form of internalized white supremacy. During his short time on earth, X channeled the words he heard as a child, doing all that he could to motivate Black citizens to rise up and, “accomplish what you will.” Malcolm X rejected the internalization of Abraham Lincoln as a white savoir. He rejected this mythicized view of Lincoln and sought to replace it with stories of Black autonomy and strength. In the end, Malcolm X’s criticisms of Abraham Lincoln were based on legitimate historical evidence. This evidence was provided through the lens of historian Joel Rogers who shared in Malcolm X’s view that the accomplishments of Black Americans had been drastically overshadowed and rejected. Malcolm X had grown up with a legacy of Abraham Lincoln which, through his study, he came to see as a myth. As a result, Malcolm X fought against that mythology because he came to see Lincoln’s legacy as a form of white supremacy. By challenging Lincoln’s legacy through historical analysis, Malcolm X worked to counter the mythology that he felt detracted from the accomplishments of Black Americans in shaping and claiming their own destinies.


[1] Malcolm X, Interview by Robert Penn Warren, June 2, 1964, tape 2, transcript and recording, University of Kentucky,
[2] John H. Franklin, “The Use and Misuse of the Lincoln Legacy,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 7, no. 1 (1985): 35.
[3] Malcolm X, Interview by Robert Penn Warren, June 2, 1964, tape 2, transcript and recording, University of Kentucky,
[4] Malcolm X, The Portable Malcolm X Reader edited by Manning Marable and Garrett Felber, (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 290.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Malcolm X in interview by unknown reporter, 1960, Budget Films,
[7] Thabiti Asulkile, “J. A. Rogers: The Scholarship of an Organic Intellectual” The Black Scholar 36, no. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 2006): 35.
[8] Pittsburgh Courier, Jan. 10, 1959, p6
[9] Thabiti Asulkile, “J. A. Rogers: The Scholarship of an Organic Intellectual”, 38
[10] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964), 9.
[11] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America: The Afro-American in the Making and Saving of the United States, (New York: Futuro Press, 1961), 157.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America, 202.
[14] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America, 198.
[15] Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years Vol. One, (Philadelphia: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1926), 567.
[16] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America, 203.
[17] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America, 203 – 205.
[18] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 264.
[19] Malcolm X, The Portable Malcolm X Reader, 243.
[20] Malcolm X, The Portable Malcolm X Reader, 272.
[21] Malcolm X, “Abe Failed Negroes: Malcolm X” Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, IL), Aug. 26, 1963.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Isaac Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg, & Company, 1885), 415.
[25] Eric Foner, “Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist?” Los Angeles Times (CA), Apr. 9, 2000.

Categories: History | Tags: , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln

  1. Rich Smyth

    As the headline on the paper Malcolm X is holding suggests; Our Freedom Can’t Wait. In the eyes of Blacks from the time of abolitionism till today; it was all talk, politicians said be patient. The only white Malcom X admired was John Brown – he walked the walk.

    • Over the course of this class, I appreciated how Dr. Joseph kept portraying to us how X would feel and respond to today’s racial injustice. X wanted to make people uncomfortable because he knew this was the only way to motivate changes in thinking and action. He also believed that revolutionary action was the only thing that could truly shake the status quo. So, I would agree with you that John Brown was likely one of the few white people Malcolm X admired because he had the courage to act.

  2. Miriam Crispin

    Dave, as always you have done a thorough job researching and presenting a thought provoking paper.


  3. George Pappas

    One does not need a degree to be an historian, Dave. While I laud your effort to get MA next to your name, make no mistake about it, you are an historian with or without the degree.

  4. Paul Hancq

    Good article, Dave. I learned from it.

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