Dear Fellow Citizens:
One hundred fifty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. As most serious Lincoln scholars agree, the crux of the former President's opposition to the cruel institution was its denial of a person's basic entitlement -- the fruits of his or her own labor, and the depravations of human dignity that resulted from this denial.
Labor injustice was indeed a preeminent challenge facing American society during the 1800s. As Ira Berlin observes in his insightful book, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations, the involuntary migration of "Angolans, Igbos, Kongos, Minas, Mandes, and others" between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, by the millions, to the shores of the Americas, transformed these men, women, and children "into Africans and, in time, African Americans." These forced departures were primarily motivated by the insatiable and manufactured demand for 'free' labor--the sweat equity needed to cultivate and grow tobacco, rice, cotton, and sugar. The legions of tortured souls were victims of the epoch's agricultural economy in the American South and the global economy at large, and subject to racial violence and a segregated caste system that found expression in the laws and institutions of the land. Through their toils on the antebellum plantations of the American South, bloodshed sacrifice during a Civil War, resistance to de facto re-enslavement after emancipation, domestic migrations in search of justice and opportunity, and subsequent struggles to assert their human dignity in the face of appalling violence and stubborn oppression, African Americans developed what William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, in his classic book, The Souls of Black Folk, referred to as "a veil...[a] double consciousness...an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body..." Generations of African Americans were not only denied the fruits of their own labors, but also -- during some of the darker periods of American history--the rights and privileges enshrined in the American constitutional framework and body of constitutive commitments.
The strategies used to reconcile this Du Boisian identity crisis have had both legal and moral rationales and they have produced considerable gains: removing the yolk of chattel slavery; courageously protecting communities from widespread racial violence; ending Jim Crow segregation; attaining equal civil rights guarantees; and securing greater socioeconomic opportunities. With each of these victories, African Americans and other groups that have suffered on the margins of society, have served as the conscience of the nation and deepened the notion of American democracy.
The work of towering figures such as: Frederick Douglass, WEB Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, John Hope Franklin, Cornell West, Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Eric Dyson, and Henry Louis Gates Jr, have made indispensable contributions to American intellectual life. Innovations from the gifted minds of figures like: Benjamin Banneker, George Washington Carver, Granville Woods, Patricia Bath, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Dr. Ben Carson, have enriched the lives of millions of people. The classic works of master storytellers and poets, including: Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frances Harper, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and many others, adorn the shelves of libraries around the world, and will continue to enrich American literary tradition for generations to come. The tireless work of activists, advocates, jurists, statesmen, and stateswomen -- from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, to Blanche Kelso Bruce and Charles Hamilton Houston; Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr., to Robert Carter and Harold Washington; Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, to Van Jones, Tavis Smiley, and, of course, President Barack Obama, have advanced justice and deepened democracy in America.
From the seeds of West African polyrhythms, African Americans have developed Gospel, the Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Soul, Hip Hop, and more -- using the music of artists like: Scott Joplin, BB King, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper, Jill Scott, Raphael Saadiq, Esperanza Spalding, and many others, to find inspiration and cope with the suffering of the day. In athletic pursuits, the likes of Jesse Owens, Arthur Ashe, Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Michael Jordan, the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, and Gabby Douglas are just a few of the top performers who have evolved the art of sports.
These extraordinary individuals distinguished themselves in their respective fields and the world has benefited enormously from their talents. The soul of America, however, is not nurtured solely by their achievements, but also by those of numerous ordinary citizens as well. The mothers, fathers, teachers, nurses, lawyers, cashiers, cooks, custodians, and librarians that keep our communities functioning constitute the true heroes and heroines of American history and it is through their unwavering struggle and sacrifice, and the love they exhibit for others on a daily basis, that our Union is perfected.
Lincoln's recognition that depriving an individual of the fruits of his labor was a grave injustice strikes at the heart of the concept of human dignity. The suffering endured by the "souls of Black folk" behind the figurative veil that Du Bois so eloquently captured in his classic work over a century ago, was a testament not only to the resilience of suffering people, but also to the importance of striving toward a well-harmonized, citizen-based notion of human dignity that applies to all people living in America.
Du Bois probably understood -- as the visions of the Founding Fathers implied -- that the African-American identity crisis of his era would be reconciled by allowing all people to share in the fruits of a concept of full citizenship firmly rooted in morality and full human dignity, and protected by the laws and institutions of the land. This is precisely why he advocated a solution commensurate with the scope of past injustices -- a full Human Rights strategy -- even before the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Let us build on the hard-fought progress of previous generations and honor the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation by advancing the human rights of all of our country's beloved citizens and the rights of all people around the world.