Today — Jan. 1, 2013 — marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. That executive order, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, has been a source of controversy and debate since its issuance.
Some people argue that Lincoln was a “reluctant abolitionist” who issued the Proclamation not because of personal conviction but as a matter of military strategy.
Some people note that the proclamation only freed those slaves in states that were in rebellion against the United States. Others have painted Lincoln as a man who acted out of heartfelt conviction, while some people in his time argued that the Proclamation didn’t go far enough.
Abolitionist Wendell Phillips called Lincoln a “first-rate second-rate-man.”
Debate about Lincoln’s motives will continue through and beyond the Civil War bicentennial, but the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation was concrete. The Proclamation added a moral element to the Civil War, eliminated the possibility of England siding with the Confederate States of America and granted African-Americans the opportunity to fight for their freedom in the United States Army and Navy.
The symbolic significance of the Proclamation was profound. Abolitionists gathered in Boston’s Faneuil Hall on Dec. 31, 1962 to celebrate its enactment and to hear abolitionist Charles Sumner say, “Thank God, I live to enjoy this day.” Slaves in places like the Sea Islands of South Carolina gathered on the same evening for a very special “Watch Night” and gave thanks to God for their long-sought freedom.
The Emancipation Proclamation was unquestionably a significant step on a road that led to the abolition of American slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, wound through the mid-20th century’s civil rights acts, and that led and still leads to other public-policy guarantees of equity and justice for all citizens.
We’ve come a long way since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Jim Crow segregation laws passed across the South after a brief period of Reconstruction-era freedom and equity have been eliminated. The massive Ku Klux Klan public rallies that I witnessed in the days of my youth are no longer held.
I’m a graduate of the University of South Carolina, where I was thrown off the campus as a sixth grader with a profane warning from a campus policeman that he didn’t want to see me there again unless I was wearing a green maintenance uniform.
We’ve come a long way since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and since subsequent legal guarantees of equal access and opportunity were enacted, but our national journey to freedom isn’t over, because laws can’t change hearts, minds or attitudes.
We’ve re-elected an African-American president, but his first term was marked by politically crafted congressional deadlock, and he’s been subjected to an arrogant and unprecedented level of criticism and innuendo.
The Democrats who led our state out of the Union and who imposed Jim Crow laws “jumped ship” when their party embraced civil rights in the 1960s and subsequently turned the Party of Lincoln into the party of divisive political strategies, where minorities are still welcome if they can swallow hard and embrace and spout the party rhetoric. Poll taxes and literacy tests have been outlawed, but recent voter photo ID laws to address undocumented and unproven voter fraud have the potential to create new disenfranchisement.
The Ku Klux Klan is a shadow of what it used to be, but the sights and sounds of early Tea Party rallies were chillingly reminiscent of the Klan in its heyday.
Charleston’s Emancipation Proclamation Association will celebrate the Proclamation with its annual New Year’s Day morning parade and a noonday worship service at Morris Brown AME Church, but our best celebration isn’t an annual event.
Our best way of celebrating is to work together for progress across the lines of color, culture, faith and politics that too often serve as walls of division. Our best way of celebrating is to talk “to” each other rather than “at” each other and to seek common ground for the good of all citizens.
When we do those things, then the spirit embodied by the Emancipation Proclamation will live in our hearts and minds, shape our attitudes and help us to change our nation for the better.
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is senior pastor of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church.