Saturday, January 05, 2013

150 Years Since the Emancipation Proclamation: Are African Americans Free?

150 Years Since the Emancipation

Are African Americans free and what should be their priorities?

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

January 1, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the depths of the United States civil war. The civil war lasted from 1861-1865 and lead to the re-entering of 11 slave-holding states back into the Union and the legal abolition of slavery.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery or the civil war, it was a political document that intensified the war between the states and brought about the intervention of Africans into the conflict, a development that was decisive in the outcome of the battle. Slavery was only formally ended with the passage and later ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Slavery was an economic system that reaped tremendous profits for both the planters as well as the burgeoning industrialists both inside the U.S. and in Western Europe. Nonetheless, the system had outlived its profitability and economic viability and therefore came into direct conflict with the capitalists who sought greater avenues for the exploitation of land, labor and natural resources.

This year's anniversary of the issuing of this historic document was relatively low-key from the standpoint of officialdom in Washington. For the last two years a traveling exhibit of the original document has drawn thousands out to view this important piece of U.S. and African American history.

After a century-and-a-half the importance and social impact of the document requires evaluation and analysis. In light of the fact that the struggle for African American liberation is still an unfinished project, the question becomes are the descendants of four million enslaved people in 1865 today free from exploitation, oppression and national discrimination.

This is obviously a rhetorical question. Any serious observer would note that the African American population still suffers from the legacy of slavery.

Today African Americans have the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the U.S. This is not to discount the gains made since 1865--many individuals have done well professionally and economically--the Civil Rights, Black Power and Pan-African movements over the decades made tremendous strides and contributed immensely to the evolution of what is considered a democratic society in the modern period.

However, the prisons are filled in the 21st century with people of African descent. This oppressed nation is subjected to racism within the criminal justice system and is often at the wrong end of the police baton, taser, pepper spray and assault weapons.

In the area of politics, even under an administration led by a president that self-identified as African American when he initially ran for the senate and oval office, there is no recognition of the special plight of the nationally oppressed within the African community as well as Latin American and other targeted groups. Racism, poverty and political repression are largely excluded from the U.S. discourse within the corporate media and the ruling organs of the state, i.e. the presidency, the judiciary and the congress.

It took a bloody civil war to end slavery where an estimated one million people died. Then another century of mass and legal struggles were necessary to ameliorate the failure of Reconstruction after slavery and the successive decades of the 19th century.

Only in 1964 was there the passage of the Civil Rights Act that ostensibly outlawed discrimination on a federal level. The following year, 1965, through the mobilization met with brutality and death in Selma and other areas of the South, was there the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. Later after the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the recognized leader of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, was there a Fair Housing Act passed in the U.S.

Reflections on an Emancipation Day Celebration in Detroit

Every year at the Historic New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit there is a "Watch Night" service and an Emacipation Day event. Watch Night is symbolic of the enslaved African population's wait to hear news of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Eve in1862-1863.

Churches all over the U.S. hold similar ceremonies but New Bethel has a special place within African American history. First, Detroit has the largest per capita municipal population of people of African descent inside the country, at least 85 percent.

The city has been essential in the liberation trajectory going back to the days of slavery when Detroit was a major destination in the Underground Railroad. Africans who had escaped slavery in the South during the mid-19th century would come to Detroit and then travel the short distance across the River to Canada where by this time slavery had been outlawed.

During the 20th century, the city would become a magnate for African Americans and many other nationalities seeking to enter the system of industrial production. It was in Detroit-Highland Park that the first assembly line came into existence in 1908 at Ford Motor Company.

The assembly line revolutionized the world economy. "Fordism" became a system of mass production that transformed industry and brought millions into the working class.

Consequently, some of the most intense labor struggles were waged in the state of Michigan with workers engaging in sit down strikes and mass demonstrations to win recognition as labor unions. The existence of the eight hour day, vacation time, healthcare benefits, seniority and above all the right to bargain collectively were consolidated with these efforts during the Great Depression of the 1930s and 1940s.

At New Bethel on January 1, Rev. Robert Smith, Jr., the pastor of 30 years, spoke to the inherent racism within the production process. He recounted experiences in the South where he was born and educated, where he would be forced to train white workers for jobs that official policy would grant higher wages for the oppressor nation than those among the oppressed.

New Bethel became known nationally and internationally through its previous minister, the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, who pastored the church between 1946 and 1984 when he died after suffering gun shot wounds in 1979. Rev. Franklin became a household figure through his powerful sermons that were broadcast over W-LAC in Nashville during the 1950s and 1960s.

Rev. Franklin released dozens of records including his sermons and songs. He toured the country in the 1950s with his daughter Aretha, who would later become the "Queen of Soul" in the late 1960s.

In 1963, Rev. Franklin organized the historic "March to Freedom" that mobilized hundreds of thousands in Detroit. The march was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and enjoyed the support of the United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther among others.

It was at Cobo Hall after the march on June 23, 1963, that Dr. King would deliver his first "I Have a Dream" speech, that was later released on Motown Records. The success of the Detroit march set the stage for the "March on Washington" on August 28, 1963.

At the 2013 Emancipation Day event, this writer was invited to the pulpit to deliver an address to the audience at New Bethel. As the first speaker I told the people present that this was an historic day and that the current struggles we face requires new thinking and bold political initiatives.

Rev. Smith had selected as the theme for the panel discussion, the recent passage by the right-wing state government of "right-to-work" legislation in Michigan, the birthplace of industrial unionism. Labor leaders were present at the event and Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson was the keynote speaker.

I emphasized that the U.S. is undergoing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and that the banks and corporations were at the root of the malaise. As in the 1930s when union recognition was won, workers needed to engage in mass actions to shut down production.

It remains to be seen whether today's labor leaders will heed this call. The need for a general strike in response to right-to-work legislation and other repressive laws was taken to the Capitol in Lansing on December 11 by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shut-offs. (

Two thousand leaflets with this call were distributed on December 11 as 17,000 workers and their supporters rallied. Several people were pepper sprayed and arrested and state riot police swept the streets with batons and mounted horses.

The crisis of capitalism and imperialism is compelling the ruling class to impose austerity measures in the U.S., Europe and throughout the world. These developments represent not the strength but the weakness of a outmoded system of production, distribution and social

Changing the current system is the only salvation of humanity. The continuation of capitalism will only bring about greater economic decline, social unrest, wars without end and international catastrophy.

Liberation Theory and African American History

Perhaps the most profound work written on the civil war and the failure of the U.S. to build a genuine democratic system after the war, was Dr. W.E.B. DuBois' book "Black Reconstruction in America, An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880." This book was initially published in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression.

In the chapter entitled "The Coming of the Lord," DuBois discusses the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation. He says that "In the ears of the world, Abraham Lincoln on the first of January, 1863, declared four million slaves 'thenceforward and forever free.' The truth was less than this. The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the slaves of those states or parts of states still in rebellion against the United States government. Hundreds of thousands of such slaves were already free by their own action and that of the invading armies, and in their cases, Lincoln's proclamation only added possible legal sanction to an accomplished fact." (p. 84)

DuBois then goes on to point out that "Emancipation had thus two ulterior objects. It was designed to make easier the replacement of unwilling Northern white soldiers with black soldiers; and it sought to put behind the war a new push toward Northern victory by the mighty impact of a great moral ideal, both in the North and in Europe."

DuBois stresses that Lincoln only issued the document as means of winning the war against the slave owners of the South. With the abolition of slavery, the running away by Africans from the plantations and the entry of nearly 200,000 of them in the Union army, would the war be won by 1865.

If Lincoln could have won the war without abolishing slavery he would have done so. However, the role of the African people was indispensable in the process of maintaining the U.S. from partition and the inevitable collapse of legalized slavery.

Nevertheless, the struggle for genuine liberation would be much more complex and protracted. As the capitalist system came into conflict with fuedalism and slavery in the 19th century, in the 20th and 21st centuries the capitalist system had become the principal impediment to the freedom of African Americans and all oppressed and working class people.

The Need for Revolutionary Change

In this second decade of the 21st century, capitalism and imperialism have been completely unmasked. In Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and North America, the ideologues of the status-quo articulate no vision for the future other than imperialism, neo-colonialism and economic austerity.

It was presumed that mass production and high technology would lead to the permanent eradication of mass poverty. To the contrary, this phase of the world economic system has reinforced existing social contradictions and widened the gap between rich and poor.

At present humanity, consciously or unconsciously, cries out for a system that redistributes the wealth and resources of the world for the benefit of the majority. The simplistic notions advanced by the Occupy Wall Street movement that "We Are the 99 Percent" has resonance.

The masses of workers, farmers, revolutionary intellectuals and youth have no future under the status-quo. The job of the activists and advocates today is to give voice and provide avenues of organization for the realization of the popular aspiration of the immense majority of humanity.

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