Welcome to the first of this special 3-part article series presented in honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation:
The fact that an African American sits in the White House at the helm of government in the United States of America on this 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation represents both phenomenal political symbolism and a victory of faith in democracy that should not be lost on any American.
Thoughts of the Emancipation Proclamation or the text of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution generally evoke images of American Blacks departing fields and kitchens to lend their own interpretation to the country’s great experiment in western democracy. But the end of legalized slavery did more than provide liberation for the bodies of some four million slaves by the time the Civil War ended. It also provided a kind of freedom for the minds and souls of those Whites who for whatever reason had believed that slavery was a sustainable institution in a society founded precisely to restrict limitations imposed upon individual human liberty.
For slave owners, it therefore meant release from the shackles of fear of awaking some night to the grip of a slave’s gnarled hands choking his or her life away. It meant freedom from the entanglements of hypocrisy that had led them to employ Biblical scripture to justify the vilest actions. And it meant escape from a jailhouse constructed of self-delusion and over-inflated egos incapable of reconciling personal desire with the realities of irreversible history.
Language and Precision
The Emancipation Proclamation is the longer of Lincoln’s two history-changing compositions but both had the same ostensible goal—to end slavery as a means for classifying human beings as property based solely on the color of their skin. It may generally be summed up by this brief passage:
“I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free…”
As short as that excerpt is––and despite the precisely identified “designated States”–– it is an immensely powerful one that identifies a huge difference between President Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the final one issued 150 years ago as of January 1, 2013. Those who tell themselves that words don’t matter would do well to consider this distinction. The first draft––sometimes referred to as a “warning”–– would have left it up to slave-holding states to implement “immediate or gradual abolishment of slavery within their respective limits…”
The text the Thirteenth Amendment, which two years later sealed the intent behind President Lincoln’s proclamation, is short and direct enough to quote here in full:
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
“We must cure ourselves of slavery. This amendment is that cure!” So declares actor Daniel Day-Lewis in his role as the great president in Steven Spielberg’s current blockbuster film Lincoln.
Given the way Congress has conducted –or not conducted–– the people’s business for the past two years, and given the consistent voting patterns of certain southern states in regard to Barack Obama’s presidency, it is not difficult to imagine that sanctioned slavery could very well still exist in this country had such states been left to their own inclinations. In the end, Mr. Lincoln made the daring move to take deliberation out of the equation and put slavery as practiced in America in its grave.
NEXT: Notes on the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation Part 2: Abraham Lincoln as Hollywood Superstar
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love
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- Notebook on Black History Month Part 2: Remembering Arthur Ashe
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- Notebook on Black History Month 2012 Part 4 The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
- Notebook on Black History Month 2012 Part 5 Black Power Mixtape continued