In the second half of the Proclamation’s first century, the annual celebrations diminished in extent as well as in fervor. Some celebrants, with an eye on a quick buck, began to promote June 19, the day on which President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill abolishing slavery in the territories. The bill did not apply to Texas, which was a state in the Confederacy, but slick promoters there soon drew attention to that day and persuaded Texans, Oklahomans, and others in the Southwest that this was indeed the day of emancipation. It was never quite clear to me, moreover, why we in Oklahoma celebrated August 4 as well as Juneteenth and January 1, but, clearly the summer months had many advantages over a January observance.
Something else was diluting the celebrations of the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was bad enough that a casual reading of the Proclamation made clear that it did not set the slaves free. It was also clear that 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.
Several years before 1963, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began to use the motto “Free by ’63.” Other groups adopted the motto and focused more attention on the drive for equality. Many leaders were especially sensitive to the significance of the Emancipation Centennial in pointing up racial inequality in American life. On September 22, 1962, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York spoke in Washington to mark the opening of the exhibit of the Preliminary Proclamation, “the state’s most treasured possession,” he said, “the very existence of the document stirs our conscience with the knowledge that Lincoln vision of a nation truly fulfilling its spiritual heritage is not yet achieved.”
During the centennial year itself, the United States Commission on Civil Rights presented to the President a report on the history of civil rights, most of which I wrote on contract with the Commission. Knowing that I would be out of the country during most of the centennial year, I published my history of the Emancipation Proclamation as my contribution to the observance.* On Lincoln’s birthday in 1963, President and Mrs. Kennedy received more than a thousand black and white citizens at the White House and presented to each of them a copy of the report of the Civil Rights Commission, called Freedom to the Free. Speaking at Gettysburg later that year, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “Until justice is blind, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.” President Kennedy took note of the absence of equality when he said, “Surely, in 1963, 100 years after emancipation, it should not be necessary for any American citizen to demonstrate in the streets for an opportunity to stop at a hotel, or eat at a lunch counter . . . on the same terms as any other customer.”
Although it is now possible for most African Americans to eat at a lunch counter in most parts of the United States, the extension of these civilities has been accompanied by subtle, yet barbarous forms of discrimination. These forms extend from redlining in the sale of real estate to discrimination in employment to the maladministration of justice. In issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and wording it as he did, Lincoln went as far as he felt the law permitted him to go. In subsequent months he went a bit further, inch by inch, until before his death he was calling for the enfranchisement of some blacks. The difference between the position of Lincoln in 1863 and Americans in 1993 is that our leaders in high places seem not to have either the humanity or the courage of Lincoln. The law itself is no longer an obstruction to justice and equality, but it is the people who live under the law who are themselves an obvious obstruction to justice. One can only hope that sooner rather than later we can all find the courage to live under the spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation and under the laws that flowed from its inspiration.
This essay is based on a talk given by John Hope Franklin at the National Archives, January 4, 1993, on the occasion of the 130th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
*The Emancipation Proclamation (Garden City, NW: Doubleday and Company, 1963; reprint, Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1994).
John Hope Franklin has taught at Fisk University, the University of Chicago, and most recently, Duke University, where he is James B. Duke Professor of History Emeritus. Past president of the American Historical Association and the Society of Phi Beta Kappa, his publications include From Slavery to Freedom (1947), The Emancipation Proclamation (1963), and Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988 (1990).
In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.” — President Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution declared that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Formally abolishing slavery in the United States, the 13th Amendment was passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with the 14th amendment and the 15th amendment, are the three Reconstruction amendments.
Text of the 13th Amendment
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.