COLUMN: Emancipation: 150 years later, are you optimistic?
THIS MONTH is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a milestone in freedom in American—and human—history. On Thursday, Jan. 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Proclamation in his study after the traditional New Year’s celebration. There was no ceremony or Cabinet meeting, according to historian John Hope Franklin, only the presence of a few friends.
The Emancipation Proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” in the rebellious Confederate states “are, and henceforth shall be free.” According to Franklin, just before Lincoln signed the document, he said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.” (Franklin’s fascinating article, based on a talk he delivered at the National Archives, was posted online by the Archives.)
Nothing changed immediately, of course, but the Proclamation had an electrifying effect among Americans at the time. It gave moral force to the Civil War; its purpose was now more than holding the Union together.
But, 150 years later, I'm asking:
Have we delivered on the promise?
For more than 100 years, every Jan. 1 was a time of celebration and remembrance of the Proclamation. Many African-American churches scheduled special New Year’s Eve services to mark the anniversary. Then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson marked the 100th anniversary by pleading for faster action on Civil Rights. “One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin,” Johnson declared in 1963.
Franklin, a famous African-American historian who died in 2009 at age 94, was invited to deliver his talk in 1993 at a special program to mark the 130th anniversary of the Proclamation.
Does this mean that effect of the Proclamation has been so complete that it is now part of the fabric of our laws and culture? Is it a sign of progress?
Last month, Gallup asked Americans, “Looking ahead to the next year, are you optimistic or pessimistic about how you and your family will do in 2013?” While the majority of Americans said they were optimistic, nonwhites were more optimistic than whites. Almost eight of 10 nonwhites (79 percent) said they were optimistic, compared with 65 percent of non-Hispanic whites who said they same.
Now, I know that a lot of different factors, especially the economy, go into global assessments like this. Still, does it tell us anything about progress made in the last century and a half?
Have we delivered on the proclamation's promise?
Where have we succeeded — or failed?