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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
Underrated and under-read
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
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
Some enduring questions and controversies:
Who was and wasn't freed?
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
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.)
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.
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?
signed the Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1 but issued a preliminary
version Sept. 22, 1862, saying he planned to make it official 100 days
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.
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
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.
If this is Lincoln, where's the eloquence?
The Emancipation Proclamation is not a stirring declaration of freedom.
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?
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
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.
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."
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
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
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.
Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who was defying a federal court order to
admit a black applicant, James Meredith, to the state university at
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.
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.
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.
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."
King said what had not been said the previous year on the same spot: A
century after Emancipation, "the Negro still is not free."
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."