One-hundred and fifty years ago this week, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That act ended the federal sanction of human bondage and, at least symbolically, liberated most slaves living in Confederate States.
Lincoln made a calculated, tactical decision that he believed would win the war; he hoped freed slaves would fight for the Union, and roughly 200,000 did. But he also knew it was the right thing to do. The night before — Dec. 31, 1862 — free blacks and runaway slaves gathered in churches and waited. Watch night, they called it. When morning came on Jan. 1st and the news arrived that “Father Abraham” had signed the proclamation, celebrations erupted everywhere. Greater equality and social justice as the goal of civil rights would not take root in the nation’s conscience for almost another hundred years, but wresting freedom for those in bondage was a first important step.
So we celebrate this historic event and note the progress our nation has made in acknowledging the right of all human beings to be free. As a nation we have evolved from a society that endorsed the tyranny of slavery to one that passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to a nation that elected and re-elected the first African-American president.
As we note our country’s progress, however, we must also acknowledge the challenges we still face as a nation when it comes to safeguarding the hard-won right to vote. I’m not the first to recognize that recent efforts to suppress voter turnout harkened back to the days of Reconstruction and enforced segregation.
State legislatures nationwide have passed voter suppression laws that discourage citizens from voting. These include requiring voters to show a complicated array of government IDs in order to cast a ballot, curtailing early voting, and attempting to outlaw Sunday voting — when black churches organize “Souls to the Polls” events. So on this week’s anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we must continue to stand up for freedom and withstand attempts to turn back the clock to the 1800s. Just as right-minded folks did 150 years ago, we must watch, act, and never become complacent. — MRT