These and similar statements have become common in the effort by conservatives to invalidate arguments that systematic oppression endures. But this history is not only inaccurate — it is also dangerous. Histories that use self-congratulatory myths of “white saviors” to celebrate the achievements of white Americans in ushering in racial equality actually compound the challenges of racism. By decentering black people from the history of civil rights campaigns, these stories help play down the structural inequalities of racism that persist.
In American history, Abraham Lincoln represents the quintessential white savior. Lincoln’s biographers often celebrate his political genius and ingenuity in releasing the Emancipation Proclamation and ending slavery. Consequently, he is celebrated as the “Great Emancipator” in national memory. Though he was crucial to the war effort, his elevation ignores the historical reality that the “Great Emancipator” was actually a reluctant abolitionist who tried to appease slaveholders and hoped to expatriate free black people from the United States.
But the excessive focus on Lincoln also ignores the central role black people played in working out their own freedom. Risking everything, black Americans confronted white supremacist violence and forced their white allies to recognize that any approach toward the freedom struggle must elevate black voices within the movement.
In fact, historian Kellie Carter Jackson proves that black abolitionists were central in bolstering the abolitionist cause throughout the United States and abroad. They rejected the passive “moral suasion” philosophy of white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who asserted that emancipation “could be achieved by convincing white Americans of the sinfulness of slavery.” Black abolitionists were not so naive. They contended that the United States was so invested in the institution of slavery that Americans would never challenge the Southern slave power without force.
Black Americans watched an anemic white abolitionist movement fail to stop the institution from growing in both size and scale. Not only was the slave power expanding geographically, its techniques of subordination became more brutal and the bodies of black people were commodified in ever greater numbers to feed the machine of slavery. The pacifist approaches to emancipation espoused by white abolitionists were unsuccessful in curtailing its national influence, most harrowingly encapsulated by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857.
But while these efforts flailed, the historical record reveals that black people led the successful movement to free themselves. A black antislavery activist named David Ruggles led 600 African Americans to freedom through the Underground Railroad, and a black entrepreneur named Mary Ellen Pleasant financed many antislavery events. Throughout the Civil War, enslaved people fled their plantations to seek refuge in Union encampments, and their efforts forced Union leaders to recognize that the black freedom struggle was central to the war effort. Consequently, the Union Army was eventually opened to black enlistment, and thousands of black men joined the war effort to overturn slavery’s grip on U.S. society. Historian Thavolia Glymph reveals how black women risked everything by escaping to Union encampments, only to be met with racist and sexist abuse by white Union officers.
In short, black people could not rely on the efforts of a white leadership that did not understand their experiences. At every turn, black freedom fighters convinced white activists to reorient their original strategies, even though such ground-level efforts went unrecognized in national mythology.
If black resisters were central to these historical movements, why has the narrative of white self-congratulation prevailed? It is certainly attached to the nationalistic idea that the United States is a “white country” that owes its greatness solely to the ideas and ethics of Europeans and their descendants. Even when white people commit egregious sins like slavery and segregation, their reputations have been rehabilitated. For instance, former slaveholders developed a plantation mythology that convinced many white Americans that the Southern form of subjugation was a comparatively benevolent, paternalistic form of bondage.
And this is the narrative that many conservative commentators uphold in their historical accounts. In his 1995 book “The End of Racism,” right-wing author and documentarian Dinesh D’Souza stated that slavery in the U.S. was a more benign institution than others, even claiming the American slave was treated “pretty well.” Rush Limbaugh peddled similar claims throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, claiming that white people should feel no guilt about the institution since they led the movement to end slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Conservative commentator and author Ben Shapiro rejected the need for a national apology for slavery, contending that such an apology had already occurred when “700,000 Americans died” during the Civil War, ignoring, of course, that this number includes the Confederates who died to preserve the institution.
Ultimately, the myths of white saviorism are designed to alleviate white guilt. If white people are condemned for initiating the problem, they can still take the credit for ending it. Conservatives have manipulated such narratives to appease a white voting base that denies it has any responsibility for, or receives any benefits from, this history. This story feeds an enduring sense of white grievance and encourages white voters to reject claims for social justice espoused by marginalized groups of color.
Conservative pundits and provocateurs will continue to advance unfounded, spurious claims about the history of slavery and white supremacy in American life. But scholars and historians needn’t stand idly by. It is more important than ever to support serious research, to encourage scholars to use popular platforms to educate and inform the public about the truth, and to contest spurious claims about white saviors. Debunking right-wing misrepresentations of slavery and its aftermath holds a long tradition in U.S. historiography, and this political moment should motivate specialists to approach such debates with renewed vigor. The truth may be more difficult for white audiences to hear, but it is crucial to share it more widely so that we might move forward and address enduring inequality and violence in our society.