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Emancipation Proclamation and Realizing MLK Dream

01/15/2013 04:03 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2013
  • Scott Hancock Associate Professor, History and Africana studies, Gettysburg College

Three hundred and twenty-two days after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the two most famous speeches in American history. He vowed that soldiers who died at Gettysburg gave their lives for a "new birth of freedom" by securing the Union. For Lincoln, that included fulfilling the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Sixty-six years and 14 days after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into a country that had betrayed the promise of emancipation. As the United States became an economic dynamo, the federal government systematically shut African Americans out of one of the most remarkable economic explosions in history. State and local governments, north and south, locked out African Americans, too. Businesses, realtors, 'social' organizations like the KKK in the south and homeowners' associations in the north also helped ensure that the country King grew up in would not fulfill Lincoln's promises.

One hundred years, two hundred and 39 days after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, King delivered the other of the two most famous speeches in American history. In August 1963, from the Lincoln Memorial, King echoed Lincoln's opening lines of the Address, reminding the crowd that "five score years ago a great American... signed the Emancipation Proclamation." King knew that in that document, Lincoln, and thus the Union, had declared that African Americans would be "forever free."

King knew the Proclamation was about more than ending slavery. When Americans learn about the "I Have a Dream Speech," we often focus on its soaring rhetoric. We often forget that King said when

the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But that promissory note -- despite the work of thousands of black men and women, of white abolitionists and radical politicians, of thousands of soldiers and despite Lincoln -- had been no more than a bad check "which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" When King demanded that the check provide "the riches of freedom and the security of justice" he was demanding more than the end of legalized Jim Crow. He understood what Lincoln either did not understand or did not want to articulate in 1863: that freedom without the security of benefitting from the economic and political stability that African Americans helped create was an empty freedom.

Among all commemorations of the Civil War, this year, 2013, carries greater potential symbolism than any other single year of current or past commemorations. The 50th commemoration in 1913 sealed African Americans' disenfranchisement amid an era of racial terrorism, and made slaves and slavery nearly irrelevant in national memory. The centennial during Cold War tensions and civil rights struggles often minimized narratives about racial tensions and brutal oppression of black people. This year, though, grants the opportunity to connect the 150th commemorations of what may be the three most seminal and well-known events of the war -- the Emancipation Proclamation, the battle at Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address -- with the 50th anniversary of the high water mark of the fight to make the Proclamation's "new birth of freedom" a reality: King's speech at the Lincoln Memorial. This year we should judge how close we are to the promise's fulfillment.

For today's descendants of the enslaved, the United States isn't remotely the same as it was in 1863 or 1963 in terms of achieving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But when federal and state governments create and maintain a criminal justice system that incarcerates African Americans for drug-related crimes anywhere from 13 to 50 times more often than white Americans (1), despite statistics showing that white Americans commit drug-related crimes at the same or even higher rates than black Americans (2); when such an enormous chasm exists between black and white total household wealth that economists estimate that at current rates it will be more than 400 years before we reach rough economic equity(3); when virtually every health-related statistic reveals a marked gap between black and white Americans' potential to live a healthier life(4) -- when these realities persist, we know we haven't moved nearly far enough.

As Americans, we have a great deal to be proud of. Commemorations are times to honor what our predecessors have done right -- often in the face of lethal opposition -- and figure out why they managed to press ahead. Commemorations are also times to consider where and why we have fallen short. That kind of considered commemoration might just help us fulfill the Emancipation Proclamation's promise and realize King's dream.

References

(1) Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 7, 98; William J. Stuntz, "Unequal Justice" Harvard Law Review 121 (June 2008), 2023 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40042730; "A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society" http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/dp_25yearquagmire.pdf, pp.20-21.

(2)Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 7, 99-100; William J. Stuntz, "Unequal Justice"Harvard Law Review 121 (June 2008), 2023 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40042730; Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugsnotes that in the early 1990s

(3) Robert E. Weems, Jr., "Recent Trends in African American Consumerism" in Cecilia A Conrad et al. eds., African Americans in the U.S. Economy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 256.

(4) Brian A. Primack et al., "Volume of Tobacco Advertising in African American Markets: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis," Public Health Reports 122 (Sept-Oct 2007) http://www.jstor.org/stable/20057184
James B. Kirby, Gregg Taliaferro, and Samuel H. Zuvekas, "Explaining Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care," Medical Care 44 (May 2006) http://www.jstor.org/stable/3768359