As I sat in the oriental-styled couch in my study in Potomac, Maryland, United States of America in January this year, my mind constantly and intuitively flashed back to the most singular and courageous proclamation ever made by an American president.
It was the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, which took effect on January 1, 1863 – exactly 150 years ago. I was literally fixated, drained of energy. I had just finished watching an epic documentary on the great liberationist march by some black protesters from the National Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Inside of me, I was, figuratively speaking, empty and benumbed.
I had just literally glided through a living history – a moving story – of a people liberated from long years of slavery by the sheer courage and vision of one man. Though this particular event happened some 50 years ago, its message and plot are evergreen.
It was a story that has changed the history of the Black people in the United States forever. One major character magnificently trod the documentary like a colossus: Martin Luther King, Jnr. This was on August 28, 1963. I was moved to tears of joy.
It was a nostalgic moment for me as I relived the epochal event. In just three hours I had walked through a history that even time and space would not be able to erase. The benefits of the monumental sacrifices made by the protagonists (King and his associates) of this historical march have been everywhere with us ever since. Within 45 years after the historic march, the United States had produced its first Black American President in the person of Barack Obama. In choosing to do this piece, I had reasoned I would be contributing my little quota to the effort to make this history permanent and constantly relived, just as many African-Americans have been doing since January – the 150th Anniversary of the Proclamation of Emancipation.
The Proclamation of Emancipation of January 1, 1863 and the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 have some historical similarities. One event happened at a time America was at war (in which some states rebelled against the centre) and the other at a time of peace. In both cases, courage was the common denominator.
There was also a contrast: the protagonists were of different colours: one was an ethnic white American and the other a Black. Interestingly, both paid the supreme price for their (audacity?): they were assassinated in the prime of their lives. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which explicitly pronounced freedom for the over four million slaves in all the Confederate States of America that did not return to Union control by January 1, 1863.
The solidification of the proclamation came in December 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified by Congress, making slavery illegal everywhere in the United States.
Though he successfully won a re-election as the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln was brutally assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865 – one year into his second term. He had a humble family background and was self-educated, which substantially affected his way of life and reasoning. It would take a man of Lincoln’s courage, single-mindedness, and selflessness to take such a monumental decision that later cost him his own life and altered the course of history.
His commitment to the abolition of slavery and forced labour in the U.S. is surmised in these timeless and immutable words: “On December 31, 1862 our nation marked the end of another year of civil war. At Shiloh and Seven Lines, Harpers Ferry and Antietam, brother had fought against brother. Sister had fought against sister. Blood and bitterness had deepened the divide that separated North from South, eroding the bonds of affection that once united 34 States under a single flag.
Slavery still suspended the possibility of an America where life and liberty were the birthright of all, not the province of some… On January 1, 1863, all persons held as slaves in rebellious areas shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Every word of the Emancipation Proclamation was beautifully articulated and crafted to underscore the gravity of the impact of slavery on the moral conscience and integrity of the United States. As anticipated, the proclamation quickly achieved its purpose and contributed significantly to the unification of the states.
The foundation for the equitable and sustainable democratic culture enjoyed by Americans today, was laid by the Emancipation Proclamation. It is already over a century and half since the proclamation was made, yet it looks like something done not long ago. Successive leaders after Lincoln followed his footsteps by adding more values to the ones he had already entrenched.
The beauty of the American democratic system is that it derives from justice, equity and fairness. I was reading the contributions of some notable persons – white and black alike – who played pivotal roles in the abolition of slavery in America and marvelled at the profundity of their objectivity, courage and forthrightness. Do we still have such leaders today?
Look at a personality as Thaddeus Stevens – a powerful member of the American House of Representatives and an orator! He sacrificed his personal aggrandizement to see that slavery was abolished in the soil of the United States. Stevens was a die-hard fighter for social justice and equality of races in the United States. In one of his oratorical deliveries he was quoted as saying: “I can never acknowledge the right of slavery.
I will bow down to no deity however worshipped by professing Christians – however dignified by the name of the Goddess of Liberty, whose footstool is the crushed necks of the groaning millions, and who rejoices in the resounding of the tyrant’s lash, and the cries of his tortured victims.”This quotation symbolizes courage and self-denial.
He had the chances to use his exalted and powerful positions to suppress the voices of the oppressed who daily toiled under the humiliating authority of their white separatist bosses. Nevertheless, he opted for what was right and just. I am glad posterity has not forgotten him. Even in millions of years to come, the name Stevens and others of his ilk will continue to resonate in every nook and cranny of the universe whenever the issue of freedom for blacks in the United States is discussed. Working with people such as Stevens, Lincoln was able to carry through his plans to annihilate slavery in the United States.
There were other activists whose lives touched on the chord that sounded the death-knell for slavery in the United States. Such men and women included Harriet Ann Jacobs (An African-American writer and abolitionist), Horace Greely – an American who used his newspaper, The New York Tribune – to fight slavery, Susie King Taylor (a black American), William Carney (an African-American), Martin Delany (first proponent of American black nationalism), and Christian Fleetwood. It is important at this point to single out the indefatigable Harriet Tubman (a champion of women’s rights, born to slave parents and was herself a slave too, popularly known as the Moses of her people, because of the invaluable role she played in unchaining many slaves and giving them a new fillip).
Her towering image coupled with the frenzy generated by her near-mystic stature made her the adorable and respectable global personality that she was. There have been numerous tributes to this gigantic legendary figure, but one was outstanding – It came from Abolitionist Oliver Johnson of the Anti-Slavery Society: “During the period of my official connection with the Anti-Slavery office in new York, I saw her frequently, when she came there with the companies of slaves, whom she had successfully piloted away from the South; and often listened with wonder to the story of her adventure and hair-breadth escapes.
She always told her tale with modesty which showed how unconscious she was of having done anything more than her simple duty. No one who listened to her could doubt her perfect truthfulness and integrity. Her shrewdness in planning the escape of slaves, her skill in avoiding arrest, her courage in every emergency, and her willingness to endure hardship and face any danger for the sake of her poor followers was phenomenal.”
Beyond referring to her as ‘Moses’, Tubman was seen by many of her admirers and detractors alike as a ‘general’ as epitomized in her commanding leadership in conducting hundreds of slaves to freedom through the famous “Under Ground Railroad”.
As I indicated in the beginning of this piece, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King (Jnr.) have always inspired me. They knew that they were treading a perilous path, yet remained focused and unfazed. Why are such leaders scarce in our clime today? While Tubman and others championed the cause of the liberation of slaves from bondage and forced labour, Martin Luther king (Jnr.) took it a step further by leading the great March on Washington – to fight for jobs and freedom for oppressed blacks. It was on that march, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, that he delivered the historic speech: “I have a dream”.
Attracting over 350,000 blacks, whites and other non-minority groups, the march aroused global attention to the need to enforce the rights of blacks in the United States by providing level-playing fields for both the blacks and whites, especially in the provision of jobs and other social benefits. The protestation led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Martin Luther King, Jnr., though the arrowhead of the march, did not do it alone. In fact, there were other significant figures that actually handled the logistics for the march. They included Bayard Rustin and Philip Randolph. Randolph was the president of the Negro American Labour Council, while Rustin was a Civil Rights activist and the organizer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, which tested America’s Supreme Court’s ruling, which banned racial discrimination at inter-state level.
Randolph and Rustin were close associates of King. Working collaboratively, they were able to mobilize over 2,000 buses, 24 special trains, 12 chartered airliners and countless number of volunteer-cars for the march. The single-mindedness and enthusiasm exhibited by the marchers are yet to be seen in recent times. It also attracted great personalities that played remarkable roles in the liberation struggle.
They included Rosa Parks, Gloria Richardson, John Lewis, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Rev. Cason Blake, Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, Camilla Williams, Walter Reuther, Roy Wilkins, Mathew Ahmann, Diane Nash, Prince E. Lee, Floyd McKissick, and Mahalia Jackson who awed the gathering with her sizzling performance. It is important to mention the role played by President John F. Kennedy in the struggle.
He it was that met with the leaders of the March on Washington and proposed the Civil Rights Bill which was later passed by Congress. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963 – definitely for working to give blacks greater freedom.
It has to be acknowledged that it was the Civil Rights Bill that emboldened the organizers of the March on Washington to attempt the march ab initio. Congress later passed the bill into law and was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964.
The major thrust of the Act was the outlawing of aggravated forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. It also abolished unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public (“public accommodations”).
The process that led to the freedom and liberty enjoyed by Americans (white and black) could not have been possible if not for the personal sacrifices of Martin Luther King and his co-planners who gave up everything to fight for the liberation of their people. Their courage will forever inspire people like me. The popularity and global preeminence the United States revels in today would not have been possible if not for the foresight and selfless sacrifices of the early freedom-fighters. With the various struggles and legislation for liberty came numerous successes.
Bill Cosby became the first black person to appear in a starring role on American television, Raylawni Branch and Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong broke the jinx by becoming the first Afro-Americans to gain admission into the prestigious University of Southern Mississippi, Edward Brooke became the first black man to be elected into the U.S. Senate since 1881, while Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme court as the first black to do so.
Martin Luther King, Jnr. was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace on December 10, 1964 and assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, by James Earl Ray, marking the end of a tortuous journey to freedom for the blacks in America. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jnr. were two of a kind. Generations unborn will continue to appreciate their immeasurable contributions to the edification of humanity and the promotion of equality among men and women, irrespective of colour, religion or status. Aluta continua!