When President Barack Obama continued the presidential tradition of visiting the Confederate monument at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day, South Carolina NAACP president Lonnie Randolph likened Obama’s honoring of Confederate soldiers to paying tribute to Adolf Hitler.
Randolph says he is disappointed that Obama would pay tribute to men who died trying to keep men like the president out of the White House.
Randy Burbage of the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans called the comparison “outrageous.” Burbage is right. But I would also add that Randolph’s comparison is ludicrous, laughable, and downright stupid — because it is so demonstrably inaccurate.
While it would be morally and historically absurd to suggest that Southern men who took up arms against President Lincoln’s armies did so purely to oppress black people, it is true that virtually all white men in the 19th century, North or South, could not imagine a black president. Some simply wanted to get rid of blacks altogether, or as Lincoln told a delegation of black leaders he invited to the White House in 1862, “You and we are different races … We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races … This physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both … It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”
Lincoln constantly complained about “the troublesome presence of free negroes” and worked diligently with Congress on a plan to send American blacks to the African nation of Liberia. Lincoln also proposed a 13th amendment to the Constitution forever protecting the institution of slavery in order to pacify Southern secessionists. Needless to say, it didn’t work.
Dissuading the South from seceding by promising to protect slavery didn’t work, because the issue was secondary to the primary issue of constitutional government and states’ rights. Southerners clung to the Founding Fathers’ vision of a decentralized republic in which central planning, federal dictates, and permanent standing armies would have been impossible because the Constitution did not allow for a national government powerful enough to implement such measures.
In declaring secession illegal, and the U.S. a consolidated state, Lincoln enacted the first income tax and the first draft, and supported internal improvements and nationalizing banks. Such centralizing, socialistic, and militaristic restructuring of America was certainly more comparable to the fascism that defined Hitler’s Germany than the agrarian-based economies and loose-knit state militias that defined the Confederate States of America.
Today, it is quite popular to make comparisons between Southern secessionists and the Nazis. But Hitler himself wrote in Mein Kampf of the Old South: “[T]he individual states of the American Union … could not have possessed any state sovereignty of their own. For it was not these states that formed the Union; on the contrary it was the Union which formed a great part of such so-called states.” This was also Lincoln’s argument, and Hitler was an admirer of the 16th president for all the obvious reasons.
Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and imprisoned thousands upon thousands of newspaper editors, judges, politicians, and any other citizens, public or private, who dared to get in his way. Conducting the first “total war” of the modern era — in which Lincoln’s armies intentionally targeted innocent women, children, and old men in the South — was nothing less than an act of “genocide” against Southerners. There is nothing even remotely comparable in the actions of Confederate President Jefferson Davis or even Southern leaders like Robert E. Lee to the fascist tactics of Lincoln.
In his book Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, author Lerone Bennett Jr., the former editor of Ebony magazine, wrote the following of Lincoln’s plan to repatriate American blacks to Africa: “deportation … was the only racial solution he ever had … Racial cleansing became, 72 years before the Third Reich, 133 years before Bosnia, the official policy of the United States.” Obviously Bennett is comparing Lincoln to Hitler, based purely on the president’s intentions for black Americans.
Hitler himself wrote, “National Socialism as a matter of principle, must lay claim to the right to force its principles on the whole German nation without consideration of previous federated state boundaries.” Hitler’s language and actions were similar to Lincoln’s, who believed that state sovereignty was foolish compared to “saving the union.”
My purpose here is not to say that Lincoln was on par with Hitler, but that if someone insists on making the comparison, the 16th president had far more in common with the Nazi dictator than the Southern soldiers who died fighting for their country’s independence.
I don’t expect Lonnie Randolph or his organization to understand such an important and drastic distinction. But then again, I never expect too much from the NAACP to begin with.
Support the Charleston City Paper
We’ve been covering Charleston since 1997 and plan to be here with the latest and Best of Charleston for many years to come. In a time where local journalism is struggling, the City Paper is investing in the future of Charleston as a place where diverse, engaging views can flourish. We can't do it without our readers. If you'd like to support local, independent journalism: