11/16/2013 01:27 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Gettysburg Address and the Mission Not Accomplished

How could Abraham Lincoln really believe what he said in the first line of the Gettysburg Address?

He said the United States had been conceived in liberty, knowing full well that the founding of the country sealed a million black people in slavery.

He said the country was dedicated to equality, knowing full well that since its founding this country had systemically denied basic legal rights to nearly all African Americans.

How could Lincoln point Americans toward a set of ideals that had been so purposefully crushed for anyone black living in this country?

The answer: Lincoln said it because he believed it, because he knew full well the promise as well as the curse of America's beginning. He understood that the U.S. had a unique mission that was flawed by conditions that assured its failure.

The Gettysburg Address helped set the nation back on that mission. And it laid out the requirements for what it would take to accomplish that mission: increased devotion to a new birth of freedom.

There is no doubt that Lincoln had black emancipation in mind when he wrote about "a new birth of freedom." He knew how freedom for all Americans was severely compromised when freedom to some was so harshly denied. He sought to make the ideals of the country's founding a reality, but in the midst of the Civil War, when his own re-election, much less victory, was still far from certain, that reality was even farther off.

For African Americans in 1863, hope was on the horizon. Not many heard or read the Gettysburg Address, but among those few were the readers of the black newspaper, The Christian Recorder. The reporter for the Recorder was at Gettysburg to hear Lincoln, and, like many others who recorded the Address, wrote down a version that differed slightly from others. His ended with "a government of the people, by the people, and for all the people." This reporter heard--or inserted later--the word "all."

That addition neatly encapsulates black Americans' view of how America needed to function in 1863. And it coincided with Lincoln's intent. Unfortunately, even before reconstruction's death, the government would not be "for all the people."

Thanks to the 13th amendment, legal freedom lasted, but equality did not, despite opportunities to achieve it. What would Lincoln have done to take advantage of one nation-changing opportunity: Thaddeus Stevens's proposal in 1867 to take land that had belonged to Confederates whose property value exceeded $5,000? He was a master of political compromise but also was committed to making the Union whole. He may have seen such a measure as so punitive it would have keep the wounds of war too deep and fresh.

But Lincoln only compromised when it did not involve forsaking his core principles, and he understood freedom to be severely compromised without equality. One of the great inequalities of slavery that Lincoln abhorred was that it denied person's right to keep the fruits of their own labor. Africans and African-Americans had endured that inequity for 244 years and 91 days from when they first came to the shores of British America to the day of the Gettysburg Address.

And, just two months before that day, Lincoln had told critics of black enlistment in the U.S. Army "Why should they do anything for us, if we will do nothing for them?" Combined with Lincoln's impressive ability to evolve his thinking--not waffling, but evolving his analysis of what was best for the country as circumstances changed--perhaps Lincoln would have seen the value in doing what was just by supporting Stevens's bill, which would have only taken at most about one-eight of former Confederate's land and moved the nation toward genuine equality.

I was recently asked if the Gettysburg Address is still relevant for African-Americans, and all Americans. It is, and here's why: the United States never completed the mission. The death of Reconstruction transformed the inequities of slavery into new forms for at least another century. Redlining, government housing decisions, and a complex web of public policies prevented redress long past the Civil Rights movement. The result of four centuries of systematic inequity: according to the 2010 census, average wealth assets for a white American is just over $110,000,while the average for an African American is $4,995--less than the line Thaddeus Stevens had set for confiscation.

So who is responsible for the reality of black net worth being only 4 percent of white net worth? Some would argue that 'entitlement' programs and affirmative action have done more than enough to provide black Americans opportunity to close the gap. Lincoln no doubt would have found some wry modern analogy to address the failure of logic in this argument. He would probably say that the systematic denial of black equality and African Americans' ability to safely keep the fruits of their own labor for centuries is akin to giving a runner a 350-meter head start in a 400-meter race, and expecting another racer at the starting line to find a way to win.

That's not equality. And a compromised equality is compromised freedom. The Gettysburg Address called us to do better and to make the sacrifice of thousands matter. Another 244 years cannot be allowed to pass with the work unfinished.