By Louis P. Masur
The Emancipation Proclamation, signed 150 years ago today, was a revolutionary achievement, and widely recognized as such at the time. Abraham Lincoln himself declared, “If my name goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
On New Year’s Eve, 1862, “watch-night” services in auditoriums, churches, camps and cabins united thousands, free as well as enslaved, who sang, prayed and counted down to midnight. At a gathering of runaway slaves in Washington, a man named Thornton wept: “Tomorrow my child is to be sold never more.”
The Day of Jubilee, as Jan. 1, 1863 was called, arrived at last and celebrations of deliverance and freedom commenced. “We are all liberated by this proclamation,” Frederick Douglass observed. “The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated.” The Fourth of July “was great,” he proclaimed, “but the First of January, when we consider it in all its relations and bearings, even greater.”
Yet the day never took hold as Emancipation Day, an occasion to commemorate freedom for all Americans. Nearly three years would pass before the ratification of the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery. All too quickly, the joy of emancipation succumbed to the reality of a circumscribed freedom in which blacks found themselves the victims of economic injustice and racial discrimination.
Settling on a single day to celebrate emancipation was further complicated by the variety of dates on which actual freedom, or word of it, came to the slaves: for example, slavery ended on April 16, 1862 in Washington, but it didn’t come to Virginia until April 3, 1865; word of the war’s end and emancipation didn’t reach Texas until June 19, 1865, a day celebrated as “Juneteenth.” Some areas marked Feb. 1, 1865, when Lincoln signed the joint resolution approving the 13th Amendment. As a result, local traditions took the place of a nationwide anniversary.
But those local traditions don’t preclude a national observation. Indeed, today’s sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation provides an opportunity to observe Jan. 1 as a day of emancipation and to rededicate ourselves to freedom. In 1963, standing before the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. labeled the Proclamation a “beacon light of hope” to African-Americans and used the centennial to call for a renewed commitment to civil rights in America. Fifty years later, we might consider what a new Emancipation Proclamation would look like, one written for our times.
It would, above all, focus American and international attention on the millions of people still held in servitude. In September, the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, an organization devoted to securing personal freedom and rights for all individuals, began a project called 100 Days to Freedom. Students in schools across the country were invited to craft a New Proclamation of Freedom, which the foundation hopes will be signed by President Obama on Jan. 11, which is recognized worldwide as Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
In the United States, thousands are held against their will; minors, especially, are the victims of ruthless exploitation. While other countries are worse offenders, the United States, according to State Department reports, serves as both a source and a destination for the trafficking of children.
In a speech delivered in September at the Clinton Global Initiative, President Obama declared that the time had come to call human trafficking by its rightful name: modern slavery. “The bitter truth is that trafficking also goes on right here, in the United States,” he declared. “It’s the migrant worker unable to pay off the debt to his trafficker. The man, lured here with the promise of a job, his documents then taken, and forced to work endless hours in a kitchen. The teenage girl, beaten, forced to walk the streets. This should not be happening in the United States of America.”
That same month the president signed an executive order that stated the United States would “lead by example” and take steps to ensure that federal contracts are not awarded to companies or nations implicated in trafficking. “We’re making clear that American tax dollars must never, ever be used to support the trafficking of human beings,” he said.
Still, the invisibility of modern slavery makes it all the more pernicious and difficult to eradicate. The organization Slavery Footprint asks on its Web site, “How many slaves work for you?” A survey poses a series of seemingly innocuous questions such as what do you eat, what do you wear, what medicine do you take, and what electronics do you use? Upon completion, a number is revealed: I discovered that 60 slaves work for me — cutting the tropical wood for my furniture, harvesting the Central Asian cotton in my shirts or mining the African precious metals used in my electronics.
One way to reduce our complicity and attack human trafficking is to participate in Made in a Free World, a platform started by Slavery Footprint to show companies how to eliminate forced labor from their supply chains. A smartphone app also allows consumers to identify items made by forced labor and send letters to the manufacturers, demanding that they investigate the origins of the raw materials used in their products.
At his speech condemning human trafficking, President Obama referred to Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation as having “brought a new day — that ‘all persons held as slaves’ would thenceforth be forever free. We wrote that promise into our Constitution. We spent decades struggling to make it real.”
Today we should celebrate the extraordinary moment in the nation’s history when slavery yielded to freedom. But the work must continue. For those who insist they would have been abolitionists during the Civil War, now is the chance to become one.
Louis P. Masur is a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University and the author of “Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union.”