Wednesday, Jan. 1, begins the new year. It also marks the anniversary of a new America.
On Jan. 1, 1863, as the Civil War, the bloodiest of America’s wars, approached the end of its second year, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are and henceforward shall be free.”
The Proclamation was limited to fit wartime necessities. It applied only to the states that had seceded from and were at war with the United States, leaving slavery untouched in loyal border states. It also exempted the parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. And, of course, the freedom it promised depended on the victory of the North.
Yet, the Proclamation’s effect was far more expansive than its terms. It transformed the war into a war of freedom. As the U.S. Archives summarizes, “Every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom.” And of course, it dramatically aided the Union cause, with nearly 200,000 black soldiers and sailors fighting for the Union.
The Proclamation was the beginning. Upon victory, Congress passed three amendments to the Constitution — the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments — designed to finish the job of transforming the country that was, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “half slave and half free” to one in which all were guaranteed — under the Constitution — the” blessings of liberty.”
The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude; the 14th began to define the rights of citizens and guaranteed equal protection under the law; the 15th prohibited discrimination in the right to vote on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” (Ironically, the Constitution still does not guarantee the right to vote to all).
The amendments, forced upon the defeated Southern states as a condition for re-entry into the Union, launched the reconstruction that sought for a few short years to bring the country together. Newly empowered blacks joined with progressive whites to build coalitions that transformed state constitutions, guaranteeing the right to education, launching programs to provide more equal justice under the law.
Sadly, Reconstruction met with fierce reaction across the South. Segregation masters succeeded the slave masters. The Ku Klux Klan, formed by the elites of Southern communities, terrorized newly freed blacks. The right to vote was sabotaged by various tricks and traps, from the poll tax to unequally administered tests on the Constitution, to simple threat and terror. In 1896, the Supreme Court to its shame ruled that apartheid — the mythic “separate but equal” standard — was legal in the United States. By the turn of the century, segregation was the law of the land.
It took 100 years and the historic civil rights movement to overturn that reaction, and to begin to reclaim the promise of equal justice under the law and the revive the right to vote. The civil rights struggle, which united the movement of courageous citizens on the ground with the force of Lyndon Johnson in the White House, produced, among other legislation, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that brought America closer to its promise.
Today, we once more see the stirrings of reaction against that reconstruction. Racial division, stoked cynically by the highest offices in the land, once more is on the rise. African Americans, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, gays, women — all once more feel the rise of resentment and often of hate. The Supreme Court has gutted a critical part of the Voting Rights Act. States under reactionary governors are inventing new ways to restrict access to the vote.
Will this reaction be as successful as that which undermined the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation? America, I believe, is better than that. Our democracy is stronger than it was then. We can mobilize and vote in large numbers to keep expanding the domain of freedom.
On this Jan. 1, let us remember the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by the greatest of our presidents, a Republican, and devote ourselves to redeeming its promise.