Garrison then took his turn and said, “I once
Thought Lincoln lacked moral vision, but I
Was wrong and knew it before the assassin’s shot
Punched a hole in our reality that could not
Be healed by the lesser men who came to power,
And I myself foolishly thought in that hour
That this man’s heart had been too much of a flower,
Too delicate to take the whip against those
Who had enslaved fellow humans and then chose
To violate the union and to oppose
The destiny of freedom that belonged
To all, especially those who had been wronged
By men who knew better yet still prolonged
The brutal institution, Jefferson
And too many others from our nation’s
Origin, but now I have reservations
About my view of what he might have done.
In retrospect I see his compassion was matched
By the will of a brain that always remained detached
From his own emotion and that of a screaming mob,
Which he never confused with les misérables,
The multitude for whom he took on the job
Of redeeming the nation from its fallen state.
I can’t add much to what these others relate,
Except to say, he was not driven by hate,
And his own death he seemed to anticipate
As the payment due for the shedding of so much blood,
Though that tragic end opened the gate to a flood
Of anger and resentment, both north and south,
That once again would put freedom in doubt.”
I looked into Lincoln’s face and wondered about
The mind that bore the cause of so much death,
Which it never shunned until his last breath.
Then he spoke, “You want to know what in the depth
Of my soul enabled me to justify
A war in which so many had to die.
Whose blame was it that our world went so awry?
None but myself could assume that terrible burden
Because the soul of the multitude fell on
My head through my unforeseen election.
I said at first it was all for the union,
But I knew the truth came from a deeper law,
From what a young man who had nothing saw,
Myself who was nothing and felt that pain
When I witnessed a cruelty that laid a stain
On human existence and I could not remain
Indifferent as I looked into the eyes
Of a black man and to my witless surprise
Saw my own misery in another guise
And heard my own history in his awful sighs.
But his was sorrow without hope, which does
Make the worst a thing we can bear because
Another world sheds its light on the present
And promises new life to one who is patient.
But not for those who have never felt that moment
Of possible redemption, like a seed
Awaiting spring rain from which will proceed
Its rebirth as a living form nature has freed
From the earth which enclosed it like a dark prison.
Darkness with hope becomes a nurturing reason
To look forward to a new life and season,
But to men enslaved all this had been denied,
They were forced to keep all human desire inside,
And their consciousness of evil they had to hide
From the masters who in their suffering took pride.
I knew, given the chance, I would destroy
That evil, but what means I would employ
Escaped me, though I got it into my head
Early on that if we could prevent its spread,
Then of itself slavery would soon be dead.
But the Southerners knew it as well as I
And made up their minds they were ready to die,
Though I could not understand the reason why
Those who came from poverty like me would make
Such sacrifice for a cause in which their stake
Was nothing, for men who would not hesitate
To dispossess them for any going rate.
So I had to choose—either a slave empire
Or the war for freedom to which all men aspire.
And yes, all women too, which I know you’d say,
But I must confess that back in my own day
I didn’t grasp the role women would play
In a future some here grasped better than me.
And I know you’ve read about the colony
For those who once had known the hell of slavery.
It was a silly idea, I’d have to agree,
But look at the fate of ex-slaves after me—
What might we have done to prevent that misery?
I was not a perfect man or president,
My leadership was often insufficient,
But I never wavered in my commitment
To make Jefferson’s words about equality
A truth that would end the horror of slavery,
Though sometimes it was not clear what my strategy
Was, even to me, because I thought through actions,
That could be both right and wrong, as some new condition
Altered my perception of what had to be done.
Then death came to me almost as liberation,
My peers forgave my lack of education
And almost forgot my faulty pronunciation.
For me the afterlife has been both sorrow
And joy, for my dream of a better tomorrow
Became the one that history would bestow
On us, in which vicious Mister Jim Crow
Thought he could erase once and for all the desire
Of multitude with his silly crosses of fire,
But time has proven old Jim to be a liar,
Despite his late reincarnation as the louse
Who lied his way into my former house.
My joy derives from the resurrection of thought
That will not die in the brains of those who have fought
To make the world conform to what it ought
To be, like those who sit here next to me.
No single soul changes the course of history,
And the one you call Lincoln is not like a tree
With a single apex but with a thousand crowns.
It takes many voices to make a sound
That echoes through time and is to the multitude bound.
Douglass is in me and I am in him,
And for eternity we will be friends,
Along with these others who pursued the same ends,
Even when we did not know we were kin.
The multitude thinks through all brothers and sisters,
And everyone else who joins us as resisters
To the lie that there are people who don’t matter.
Democracy is the force that will always shatter
The betrayals of truth from those who mindlessly chatter
About walls and borders and enemies of the state.
The path we follow never will be straight,
But the time for resistance never comes too late,
Because the revolution is not a point
In time but a movement of forces sometimes joint,
And at other times, through fractured minds, disjoint,
Because the multitude thinks through error,
And most of all when it becomes a terror
To itself, hating its own image in the mirror,
But that blindness awakens a force interior
To itself that will not surrender to illusion
And promises the hope of a conclusion
To human history that makes the multitude whole.
Perhaps that can only be an ideal goal,
But the power to think it is what we call soul.”