TO COMMEMORATE this month’s 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.S. Postal Service is issuing the Emancipation Proclamation Forever stamp. A key phrase from the Proclamation—“Henceforth Shall Be Free”—adorns the stamp. The stamp will help to raise awareness of this historic milestone on the path to freedom.
But how far away was real freedom?
The Proclamation was a first step; more was needed. The Proclamation itself didn’t free slaves everywhere, only in the rebel states. As such, it was a disappointment to abolitionists. But Lincoln himself clearly understood that the Proclamation itself “had a quite limited effect in freeing the slaves directly,” writes historian John Hope Franklin, and Lincoln rushed to abolish slavery by constitutional amendment. When this amendment—the 13th—was sent to Lincoln for signature, according to Franklin he said, “This amendment is a King’s cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up.”
The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery throughout the nation, but we know that this amendment (the first of the so-called Reconstruction amendments) wasn’t a King’s cure that wound the whole thing up. As Franklin writes, “…neither the Reconstruction amendments nor the legislation and executive orders of subsequent years had propelled African Americans much closer to real freedom and true equality. The physical violence, the wholesale disfranchisement, and the widespread degradation of blacks in every conceivable form merely demonstrated the resourcefulness and creativity of those white Americans who were determined to deny basic constitutional rights to their black brothers.”
Franklin expressed those words in 1993, on the occasions of the 130th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. A lot has changed since then.
Do Franklin’s words still ring true today?
If what ways have things gotten better—or worse?
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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.