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Sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation

Where's the celebration?

October 2012

Abstract:
The 150-year anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's freeing of the slaves is right around the corner. Surprisingly, the Obama administration has been silent on this great event. What gives?
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln invoked his powers as Commander-in-Chief and issued his proclamation that all slaves within the Confederate areas occupied by Union forces, where his orders had the force of military law, were immediately freed. The proclamation had been in draft form since the summer of '62, but Lincoln was advised by his Cabinet against issuing it while the Union army was on the defensive, to avoid making it appear as desperate fishing for recruits. But after the "Battle of Antietam" at Sharpsburg, Md, on September 17, '62 (which, while not quite a victory, did result in the Confederate army retreating from Maryland), Lincoln decided that was close enough to a victory, and on September 22 he announced the forthcoming proclamation, which would be effective on January 1, 1863.

Today we are just over two months away from January 1, 2013, the 150th anniversary (sesquicentennial) of the Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps the most significant single civil rights document in our history. Today we have the nation's first Afro-American president, and I am moved to ask: Where is the celebration? This historic document, which effectively meant the end of slavery in the U.S., is certainly the most momentous decision ever by a President for the benefit of black Americans. Yet, the Obama administration has been silent about its anniversary. I ask again: Where's the celebration?

There will apparently be no significant national marking of this history-changing event. That seems to me not only lax, but tragic. President Obama is fully aware of the coming anniversary, and he is fully aware of its meaning and significance, even today, not only for the descendants of slaves, but for all Americans. But we have a president who, from his first days in office, has seemingly been so concerned about appearing to not favor Afro-Americans that he has done less to relieve their situation than a white president might have. And now he puts a lid on what should be one of the most significant civil rights celebrations in recent years. Is there something else at play here?

Let's see. If the President announces a great celebration to mark the Emancipation Proclamation, the natural question will be, "How far have we come since then?" Not far enough, it will seem to many. Our great cities all have black quarters where few people live above the poverty level. Too many children grow up in homes where violence, drug or alcohol abuse, or simply desperation is the order of the day without a real chance to break out of a social and generational cycle of poverty and violence. Such conditions are destructive of our society as a whole, it leaves millions of Americans without the benefits that our society can offer, and it is a blot on our claim to being the "home of the free." Where many advanced countries have practically eradicated poverty, our millions who are not "at the table" are an international embarrassment. I suspect that Mr. Obama feels this lack of progress personally and strongly, but I don't know why he hasn't done more to deal with it. The issue of poverty is seemingly not on his agenda: his (and Mr. Romney's) mantra in this election campaign has been to "strengthen the middle class." Strengthening the poor hasn't been brought up at all! In any case, making a major issue out of President Lincoln's proclamation might leave him in a vulnerable spot, and that could be good enough reason to leave it alone during an election.

Or is there some more sordid partisan angle at play behind this intentional neglect? Abraham Lincoln is, of course, the Republican Party's supreme icon. In highlighting his great achievement, Obama would unwittingly be highlighting the follow-up, when in the 1860s the Republican Party fought against slavery, while the Democrats defended it. When the southern blacks elected to Congress were all Republicans. When the Republican Party passed the Civil Rights amendments to the Constitution, giving blacks citizenship and the vote, against the unified opposition of the Democrats. Perhaps even how the Democratic Party remained opposed to civil rights legislation well into the mid-1960s, when Lyndon Johnson finally shamed them into dropping their opposition to the civil rights bill, essentially the same bill that President Eisenhower and the Republicans had proposed in 1957 but that was then filibustered to death by the Democrats. Maybe that's it. Perhaps the Democratic Party has nothing to gain right now, in the middle of an election campaign, by praising the long-ago good work of the Republicans against reactionary Democrats.

I'm neither Republican nor Democrat, though I'm both republican and a democrat. Both these parties have collaborated in turning Washington into Bribesville, where every member of Congress is on the take. But back to the Emancipation Proclamation: Why is there no national celebration? You tell me! Really. Push the Comment button below and tell me, because I truly hope there's a better reason than those above.

© 2012 H. Paul Lillebo

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