Emancipation Day celebration at New Bethel Baptist Church featured Detroit City Councilwoman Joann Watson as the keynote speaker. She is shown with arm around Cynthia Smith. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe), a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
150 years later, Lincoln's Emancipation still sparks debate
Rick Hampson, USA TODAY 6p.m. EST December 25, 2012
Americans are still working through why and how the Emancipation Proclamation came into being
The proclamation's sesquicentennial is being marked by speeches, ceremonies, books and exhibits
Historians say the proclamation is rarely read and widely misunderstood
Growing up in Alabama after World War II, the boy who would become the civil rights hero John Lewis spent New Year's with his sharecropper family at services in a small cinderblock Baptist church outside town.
He heard grandparents repeat their grandparents' stories about plantation life — bondage, resistance, escape. The congregation sang spirituals, field songs, freedom songs. The story of emancipation was told in skits, with congregants dressed as heroes such as Tubman, Douglass and Lincoln.
This was Watch Night, when the faithful waited for the new year as their ancestors had waited for midnight on Dec. 31, 1862. The following day, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves across the South.
Lewis, today a congressman from Georgia, never forgot those annual celebrations of freedom by people who couldn't legally check a book out of the public library. He says when he was nearly beaten to death during the Freedom Rides in 1961 and at the Selma march in 1965, "those stories inspired me to keep going."
Over the years and across the land, they helped shape what Alabama State University archivist Howard Robinson II calls "a common African-American consciousness."
The nation has just re-elected an African-American president who hangs in his Oval Office a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. This, the executive order's 150th anniversary, is the first major one when black people can fairly be called free.
The sesquicentennial is being marked by speeches, ceremonies, books, exhibits, conferences and services. You can visit the Smithsonian and see the inkstand Lincoln used when he drafted it; you can go to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston and see the pen he used to sign it.
But on this anniversary, no less than its first or its 100th, Americans are still working through why and how the Emancipation Proclamation came into being, what it meant, and what it wrought.
It's a subject on which Americans have long disagreed. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that the date Jan. 1, 1863, was greater even than July 4, 1776. William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of State, called the decree as ephemeral as "a puff of wind." In 1948, Columbia historian Richard Hofstader wrote that it "had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading."
Whatever you think of it, there is nothing else in U.S. history like the Emancipation Proclamation.
It was the product of a most difficult decision by a most complex president during a most crucial conflict. It ordered the largest single confiscation of private property in U.S. history. And before Gettysburg, Appomattox and the Second Inaugural, it ensured Lincoln his spot in the American pantheon.
Underrated and under-read
Everyone learned in school that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. Only it didn't free all of them in law; it didn't free most of them in fact; and eventually, with the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1870s, it didn't leave many of them materially better off than they were in 1862.
Rutgers historian Louis Masur says that because real freedom for the slaves came so long after 1863 and required so much more than one edict, the proclamation is underappreciated, rarely read and widely misunderstood.
Some enduring questions and controversies:
Who was and wasn't freed?
The Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime order designed and worded by a commander in chief to achieve a limited military aim — weaken the Confederacy — not to end slavery in America or make the former slaves citizens.
In fact, it freed only slaves in parts of the Confederacy "in rebellion" — about 3.2 million of the nation's 4 million slaves. Because they were behind Confederate lines, there was no way to immediately enforce the order.
Emancipation did not apply to areas of the South not in rebellion (such as southern Louisiana) or to four slave-owning border states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri) that never seceded.
The proclamation's limitations were reflected in the drive, two years later, for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery once and for all. (Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln relegates the proclamation to a footnote in its story of the 13th Amendment.)
The order could not physically free most slaves, but on the day it was issued, it immediately liberated tens of thousands, most in sections of the Confederacy behind Union lines specifically designated by Lincoln.
They included the sea islands of South Carolina. When the proclamation was read aloud at a plantation in Port Royal, slaves spontaneously began to sing "My country 'tis of thee…"
The edict was also a vital part of the process of emancipation. In areas such as Tidewater Virginia, slaves were encouraged to flee toward Union lines. As Union armies advanced through the South, more slaves were liberated by the day.
When was it issued?
Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1 but issued a preliminary version Sept. 22, 1862, saying he planned to make it official 100 days later.
Yet in late 1862, Lincoln's signature was far from certain. Critics said the proposed order was unconstitutional and unenforceable and would incite the slaves to violent revolt.
Abolitionists, black and white, worried Lincoln wouldn't go through with it. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin wrote on Dec. 12, "Everybody I meet in New England says to me with anxious earnestness, 'Will the president stand firm to his Proclamation?'"
In the end, what the president signed was different from the preliminary version. He added a provision to allow former slaves to join the Union military forces, and he dropped one for resettling former slaves in Africa and other places outside the USA.
The Gettysburg Address begins, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation… " The proclamation starts, "Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit …":
The proclamation reads like a dry military order, which is what Lincoln — fearing Union border state backlash and Supreme Court review — wanted. "These words were not meant to excite anyone," says Harold Holzer, a Lincoln biographer. "And by and large, they did not."
Was Lincoln the Great Emancipator or a reluctant one?
"No one was more skeptical of the Emancipation Proclamation than the president who issued it," writes James Oakes in his new history, Freedom National. Months before issuing the preliminary version, Lincoln asked a group of abolitionists: "What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do?"
Revisionists have argued that, despite what generations were taught in school, Lincoln issued the order only under political pressure from abolitionists in his Republican Party, and did not believe the races could co-exist in peace.
Lerone Bennett Jr., former editor of Ebony magazine, has described Lincoln as a racist who dreamed of an all-white America: "Every schoolchild knows the story of 'the great emancipator' who freed Negroes with a stroke of the pen out of the goodness of his heart. The real Lincoln ... was a conservative politician who said repeatedly that he believed in white supremacy."
Yet many historians, including Oakes, say Lincoln the emancipator was far more enthusiastic than reluctant.
He signed the proclamation even though his party had lost congressional seats in the midterm election after he issued the preliminary version. In November, he told a delegation from Kentucky he'd "rather die than take back a word of the Proclamation of Freedom."
On Jan. 1, he said, "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper."
Lincoln's work for emancipation didn't stop there. He maneuvered to gain passage in the House of the 13th Amendment and to get the border states to outlaw slavery.
But to some, this first major blow by a president against slavery has always seemed to come up short. Last year, at the unveiling of a signed copy of the proclamation, President Obama imagined how pundits today might sum up a proclamation that emancipated but did not end slavery: "Lincoln sells out slaves.'"
Emancipation then and now
To evaluate the Emancipation Proclamation on its 150th anniversary, consider how it was observed in 1962 on its centennial, when Americans gathered for a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.
Or at least some did.
Not President Kennedy, who'd backed out of speaking and was in Newport for the America's Cup yacht races.
Not Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who was defying a federal court order to admit a black applicant, James Meredith, to the state university at Oxford.
There were few white Southern officials, who had no desire to commemorate emancipation, and few civil rights leaders, incensed that no African American was originally invited to speak.
The main speaker, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, delivered what Yale historian David Blight calls "a Cold War speech" that barely mentioned the burgeoning civil rights movement.
For the Kennedy administration, the "freedom" represented by the Emancipation Proclamation was good propaganda against totalitarian communism. But at home, in light of segregation imposed by state Democratic regimes across the old Confederacy, it was an embarrassment.
Historian Robert Cook says the proclamation's centennial was inherently problematic: When international tensions made national unity imperative, how could leaders admit that the reconciliation of North and South was based on selling out black civil rights?
The result was a muted, awkward observance. John Lewis says he didn't attend and doesn't even remember it taking place.
Yet he was at the Lincoln Memorial 11 months later when hundreds of thousands gathered for the March on Washington. Martin Luther King begin his "I Have a Dream" speech with an homage to Lincoln and the proclamation, which King called "a beacon of light" for the slaves, "a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity."
Then King said what had not been said the previous year on the same spot: A century after Emancipation, "the Negro still is not free."
The rest, as they say, is history; the movement led by King, Lewis and others allowed the nation to realize the ideals of emancipation taught in its schools.
Today, Lewis is 72, one of the few surviving organizers of the March on Washington. As the year turns, he thinks about what he once saw and heard at the Macedonia Baptist Church outside Troy, Ala., and about those who kept the meaning of emancipation alive, New Year's after New Year's.
"Those stories made me want to do something," he says. "You felt there was other generations before you that was involved in a struggle. And that as a part of that tradition, you had to free yourself."
Contributing: Melanie Eversley and Larry Copeland of USA TODAY; Jessie Halladay of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal; Marty Roney of the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser; John Wisely of the Detroit Free Press.