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Ethics & Religion
Column #1,950
January 2, 2019
A Current Emancipation Proclamation
By Mike McManus

The first Africans arrived in America exactly 400 years ago, in 1629. There was not much racial progress for 350 years.

I grew up in the Deep South of Montgomery, Alabama. There were black and white drinking fountains in the 1950s and such poverty among Negroes that mules and wagons were the primary transportation for many families. Blacks had to ride in the back rows of city buses.

However, on Dec. 1, 1955 Rosa Parks sat in a white area and refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was arrested. An unknown black minister named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. persuaded Negro clergy to support a demand that blacks be allowed to sit anywhere on the bus, not just in the back rows. The bus company refused to change, so thousands of African American maids began walking to work - often for many miles.

I remember seeing hundreds trudging along the streets. Every black car driver would stop and pick them up for a ride to work. My mother drove daily to the home of our maid, Melzoria Watts, and gave her a ride to work and later back home.

The boycott lasted for a year until the bus company nearly went bankrupt. The Bus Boycott victory was the first major successful civil rights initiative in America.

What I did not realize until reading a column by Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, was that New Year's Eve is a special day in every black church in America. Abraham Lincoln promised he would release an Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

It decreed "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious Southern states "are, and henceforward shall be, free." However, on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1862, no one could be sure he would actually issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Therefore, church members in hundreds of African-American churches gathered near midnight to pray for deliverance and to sing songs of freedom and of overcoming.

The next day, 156 years ago, Lincoln did sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The news sent shock waves throughout the divided country. Southern newspapers responded with outrage. Lincoln's action was "the most startling political crime, the most stupid political blunder yet known in American history," the Richmond Enquirer thundered. "The Southern people have now only to choose between victory and death."

Of course, the proclamation did not immediately free any of nearly 4 million slaves. The biggest impact was that for the first time, ending slavery became a goal of the Union in the bloody civil war with the Confederacy. It would take two more years of war and slaughter on both sides before the promise could be fulfilled.

However, one impact was that thousands of African-Americans joined the Union Army to fight for the Emancipation Proclamation's promise.

More important, Lincoln authored the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which was passed by Congress on Jan. 31, 1865. It 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." It was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, after Lincoln's death.

However, near midnight on every New Year's Eve, thousands of African American gather in their churches to welcome the New Year, and to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. They sing songs of freedom and overcoming. Jackson reports, "They testify to how far their faith has brought them and how much faith and courage they will need to face another year."

This tradition is called "Watch Night." Today it is a reminder that African-Americans still do not enjoy the opportunity of those born white.

Jesse Jackson urged that in 2019 "we must set goals and a timetable for the most profound and in-depth corrective action program in history and show what true equality for all Americans means and looks like."

He reminds us that in 2020 there will be another presidential election. "As the candidates campaign in the next two years, they must be challenged to share their vision of what an equal, nondiscriminatory, multiracial, multiethnic multireligious and nonsexist society looks like, and how they propose to take us there."

He added "In the meantime, we the people - red, brown, yellow, black and white - must do what African-Americans have done for 400 years, from bondage to emancipation, from lynch mobs to great migrations, from the back of the bus to Rosa Parks, from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to President Barack Obama on the balcony of the White House.

"Keep hope alive."


Copyright (c) 2018 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.


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