Observing Our Tortuous Past

WI Staff | 9/26/2012, 2:16 p.m.

September 22, 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It was not the decree that ended slavery in the U.S., but its effect, as an executive order, provided that all enslaved people in the 10 states in rebellion against the U.S. were to be freed. It was not until 1865, after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, that slavery in the U.S. was declared illegal.

The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the nation's most historic and revered documents, housed at the National Archives. It represents the United States' and African Americans' tortuous history marked by barbaric human bondage, death by war, and ferocious political discourse that literally tore the nation apart.

For most Americans, the wounds of that period have healed, and for those who are the descendants of slaveholders, attempts to erase away any vestiges of the roles their ancestors may have played have been successful. African Americans, on the other hand, are still impacted by the experience that lasted for more than 400 years. And, attempts to bury the past have been futile. Their expectations of the nation's first African-American president is derived from that experience and goes further to suggest that like President Lincoln, President Obama could and should speak openly and freely about the plight and proposed programs that directly impact African Americans.

So, why is it that the anniversary of this momentous occasion was so easily overlooked? How is it that the celebration of the symbol of freedom for a nation - African Americans represent more than 38.9 million people in the U.S. - is downplayed and relegated to just another Sunday in America?

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, author and orator, encouraged President Lincoln to sign an executive order to end slavery and he remained a staunch advocate for freedom and a critic of whites and African Americans until his death. He reminded them that, "A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it."