Local Republicans can’t erase history, or their party’s profound hostility toward Black people.
Just as the failed “Recall Satya” campaign‘s billboards came down, the Republican Party of Dane County treated Madison-area motorists to another strange and deluded outdoor advertising stunt. The local party’s new ads, on billboards in 14 locations around Dane County, feature an image of President Abraham Lincoln alongside the text “THANKS REPUBLICANS | 13th AMENDMENT | EMANCIPATION | FREEDOM.” (One, along North Sherman Avenue, was promptly spray-painted with the names of actual Black people who contributed to Black liberation, including Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner.)
One almost has to admire the chutzpah. Where to begin with such buffoonery? By stating the obvious fact that the Republican Party has changed just slightly in the 155 years since the Civil War? Or the well-known truth that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not, in fact, abolish slavery but merely reframed it as a legal punishment for a crime? Or perhaps to note that after the summer that saw George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery murdered, and Jacob Blake paralyzed from the waist down—not to mention the murderers of Breonna Taylor walking free—a billboard imploring Black Americans to thank Republicans seems rather gruesome? The notion that Republicans deserve gratitude from Black Americans is more laughable than Donald Trump’s haircut expenses.
Let us first dispense with the most egregiously dishonest implication of the ad: that because Abraham Lincoln belonged to the Republican Party, and Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, today’s Republicans are allowed to take credit for Black Americans’ exit from bondage. The Republican Party as it began in the decade prior to the Civil War cared about stopping the spread of slavery to newly-minted western states—not about destroying the institution altogether on the grounds that it was wildly immoral. Instead, their concerns were practical and political in nature. Republicans of that era were afraid of the power that slaveholding states would possess if their number were to grow, and afraid of the opportunities that might take away from white men. (Sound familiar?) It’s true that some radical elements within the GOP worked to advance racial equality during Reconstruction, but ultimately the party sold Black Americans out. Today’s Republican Party policies are openly hostile to Black Americans, despite the Dane County GOP’s claims that “black lives have mattered to Republicans for over 160 years.”
For Wisconsin Republicans in particular to demand credit for the standing of Black Americans is particularly rich. Myriad reports in recent years that have named our fair Badger State one of the worst places in the country to be Black. Black Wisconsinites especially have absolutely nothing for which to thank the Republican Party. This is the same group of people who have made it their passion project over the last decade to disenfranchise as many minority voters as possible, by disproportionately purging voter rolls and closing polling places in heavily non-white neighborhoods, as well as manipulating redistricting practices with the aim of diluting the power of the Black vote. Their supposed reverence for Black lives is far from evident in the deafening silence around our state’s shameful Black infant mortality rate and Milwaukee’s problems with lead poisoning. Wisconsin Republicans make no secret of their disdain for Madison and Milwaukee, the two bluest—and Blackest—cities in the state; after Democrat Tony Evers defeated incumbent Scott Walker in the 2018 gubernatorial race, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos groused, “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority.” Just this past weekend, Vos and Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald challenged a perfectly harmless effort to collect absentee ballots in Madison city parks, signaling that they are willing to go to court and potentially invalidate more than 10,000 ballots.
It would also seem that Wisconsin Republicans are ignorant of, or perhaps indifferent to, the recent public reckoning that has been occurring around the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. While he did sign the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was far from a radical abolitionist. In 1862, he wrote to the editor of the New York Tribune defending his reluctance to champion an absolute end to slavery, declaring, “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.” While he personally opposed the institution of slavery, this is quite a low bar for hero status, and Lincoln made his full view of racial politics clear even earlier at a presidential debate in 1858, stating “I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Great, thanks for clearing that up, Abe!
It’s tempting to think of Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator” because of his position in history as the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the president under whom the 13th Amendment was enacted. That is, after all, how our history books have always portrayed him. But this ignores crucial truths not only about who Lincoln was, but about what the 13th Amendment actually says. Many people were until fairly recently unaware of the actual 13th Amendment text: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Thanks to Ava Duvernay’s 2016 Netflix documentary 13TH, this “exception” loophole has become more well-known in recent years and has been another catalyst for the reexamination of Lincoln’s legacy. On the UW-Madison campus, students calling for the removal of Bascom Hill’s beloved Lincoln statue have emphasized another cruel chapter in Lincoln’s racial politics—ordering the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Minnesota, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. But we should not be surprised to see Republicans championing a highly problematic white man instead of the countless Black Americans who fought, bled, and died for their liberation.
It’s been said—mostly by Republicans who’d rather wipe our city off the electoral map—that Madison is “77 square miles surrounded by reality.” In this case, the areas furthest from reality are the sites on which these deceitful, paternalistic, and abhorrent billboards stand.