Reflections on the Emancipation Proclamation

In September 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the New York Civil War Centennial Commission’s Emancipation Proclamation Observance, reflecting on the impact of that historic document on American history and the world.

It had been one hundred years since President Lincoln had announced his intentions and set forth a precedent for freedom. Dr. King – involved in the struggle for civil rights – looked back to that promise of freedom and its significance in the country’s past, present, and future.

Here is an excerpt from Dr. King’s address, and the complete text may be found here.

The Emancipation Proclamation had four enduring results. First, it gave force to the executive power to change conditions in the national interest on a broad and far-reaching scale. Second, it dealt a devastating blow to the system of slaveholding and an economy built upon it, which had been muscular enough to engage in warfare on the Federal government. Third, it enabled the Negro to play a significant role in his own liberation with the ability to organize and to struggle, with less of the bestial retaliation his slave status had permitted to his masters. Fourth, it resurrected and restated the principle of equality upon which the founding of the nation rested.

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation it was not the act of an opportunistic politician issuing a hollow pronouncement to placate a pressure group.

Our truly great presidents were tortured deep in their hearts by the race question. Jefferson with keen perception saw that the festering sore of slavery debilitated white masters as well as the Negro. He feared for the future of white children who were taught a false supremacy. His concern can be summed up in one quotation, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

Lincoln’s torments are well known, his vacillations were facts. In the seething cauldron of ‘62 and ‘63 Lincoln was called the “Baboon President” in the North, and “coward”, “assassin” and “savage” in the South. Yet he searched his way to the conclusions embodied in these words, “In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free, honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve.” On this moral foundation he personally prepared the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, and to emphasize the decisiveness of his course he called his cabinet together and declared he was not seeking their advice as to its wisdom but only suggestions on subject matter. Lincoln achieved immortality because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. His hesitation had not stayed his hand when historic necessity charted but one course. No President can be great, or even fit for office, if he attempts to accommodate to injustice to maintain his political balance.

The Emancipation Proclamation shattered in one blow the slave system, undermining the foundations of the economy of the rebellious South; and guaranteed that no slave-holding class, if permitted to exist in defeat, could prepare a new and deadlier war after resuscitation.

The Proclamation opened the door to self-liberation by the Negro upon which he immediately acted by deserting the plantations in the South and joining the Union armies in the North. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seeing a regiment of Negroes march through Beacon Street in Boston, wrote in his diary, “An imposing sight, with something wild and strange about it, like a dream. At last the North consents to let the Negro fight for freedom.” Beyond the war years the grim and tortured struggle of Negroes to win their own freedom is an epic of battle against frightful odds. If we have failed to do enough, it was not the will for freedom that was weak, but the forces against us which were too strong.

We have spelled out a balance sheet of the Emancipation Proclamation, its contributions and its deficiencies which our lack of zeal permitted to find expression. There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That is to make its declarations of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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