WASHINGTON – 150 years ago President Lincoln was assassinated as he was watching a play. His killing, just a few days after the end of the Civil War, was an immense tragedy. Beyond the loss of his life, America lost a leader who could have steered the war-torn country in a different direction.
Johnson and Reconstruction
It was America’s bad luck that, because of Lincoln’s death, Vice President Andrew Johnson, a racist, became President. He engineered Reconstruction in a way that allowed the old Southern establishment to reassert itself and circumvent, in practice, Lincoln’s objective to give freedom and equality to the Black slaves.
Slavery had been abolished. But some its worst features came back via the segregation legislation passed by all Southern states. These laws relegated Blacks to the bottom of society, with few, if any, chances to emerge from poverty and illiteracy.
While it would be too much to assign the entire blame of Reconstruction to President Johnson, he certainly changed the course that had been charted by Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation, and then the 13th Amendment that formally abolished slavery.
It took America another century to finally confront the legalized injustice of segregation. It was only in the 1960s that true equality under the law, for all Americans, was finally established.
Which is to say that leadership matters. Certainly the goal of welcoming the former Black slaves into the American mainstream would have been an immense challenge for any President.
But Johnson chose to essentially reverse course. He wanted peace and normalization with the South. And that meant looking the other way as the old White establishment reasserted itself, while pushing the former slaves down, and keeping them down for another century.
America lost a leader
Yes, without exaggeration, sometimes in history one man can make an enormous difference. And this is why the death of Abraham Lincoln is such an immense tragedy.
He lost his life, just days after victory in a horrible war.
Without his leadership, America lost a chance to advance on the path of equality and justice for all.