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Thenceforward and Forever Free

That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.

This New Year’s Day marks the 150th anniversary of the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, a landmark document in United States history and one of many important milestones in the painfully slow emancipation of Africans brought to North America in chains on the Middle Passage.  Issued by President Lincoln in September of 1862, the Proclamation freed enslaved African Americans in the southern states and had the practical effect of liberating slaves in areas under U.S. military control.  As such it was a partial emancipation, leaving slaves in the border states and states still under Confederate control in bondage, and deferring the Constitutional status, citizenship rights, and voting privileges all African Americans to ratifications of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution between 1865 and 1870.  Nonetheless, the Emancipation Proclamation was a watershed, establishing a legal and moral trajectory toward the Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century which, while often fiercely and brutally resisted, would not be deterred.

The Emancipation was issued under Abraham Lincoln’s signature, but many others rightfully claim responsibility.  Enslaved persons themselves, through decades of subtle resistance, repeated flights toward freedom, and outright revolt had long signaled that slavery could not remain a permanent part of American life.  Abolitionists, both Black and White, had gradually eroded the Biblical and moral support for slavery and, along with Radical Republicans in Congress, provided a loud and persistent witness both in Washington and in the great debates that led to the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, not to mention the Civil War itself.  Undoubtedly their lobbying also had an influence on Lincoln himself, whose views on slavery and the best way to end it evolved in agonizingly cautious fashion.  And, of course, military exigency and political realities coalesced to create their own climate of possibility.

Full emancipation remains deeply contested, a work in progress both for African Americans and for the inheritors of white privilege.  Vote suppression reared its ugly head in the last presidential election, African Americans suffer disproportionately from unemployment and poverty, lag far behind in educational access and achievement, populate our prisons in what many describe as the “new Jim Crow,” and face significantly higher health care challenges.  Residential and school segregation remains de facto, if not de jure.  And our first Black president has repeatedly been asked to defend his citizenship and his religion by those who harbor a dark and deep suspicion that he is not really “one of us.”

In spite of this, the anniversary being marked on New Year’s Day deserves our attention and our celebration.  It set in motion the crucial revisions to our great national documents and a set of Supreme Court decisions that had enshrined the dreadful moral blinders and cynical political compromises of the founding generation. It exposed the partiality of our liberty and the limits to our justice.  And it stirred many who would take up the mantle of their forebears in new and liberating ways. 

Fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, one hundred years ago this February, W. E. B. Dubois published his classic, The Souls of Black Folk.  In this volume we read of the bright hopes and bitter disappointments of his generation, words which still resonate today on this anniversary of this milestone of freedom:

Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation, - we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. . . .  Would American have been America without her Negro people?

Even so is the hope that sang in the songs of my fathers well sung.  If somewhere in this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitiful yet masterful, then anon in His good time America shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free.  Free, free as the sunshine trickling down the morning into these high windows of mine, free as yonder fresh young voices welling up to me from the caverns of brick and mortar below – swelling with song, instinct with life, tremulous treble and darkening bass.  My children, my little children, are singing to the sunshine, and thus they sing:  Let us cheer the weary traveler, cheer the weary traveler, let us cheer the weary traveling along the heavenly way.  And the traveler girds himself, and sets his face to the Morning, and goes his way.

John H. Thomas
December 27, 2012

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