Twenty years ago during a visit to South Africa, I learned something that shaped my feelings about one of the most cherished
documents in American history, the Emancipation Proclamation, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate this year.
I was in the Bushveld outside of Pretoria walking with several local tribal people in search of an important historical site. I was focused on avoiding snakes, so I kept my eyes on an elderly woman who seemed to know her way through the terrain so I followed her closely; where she stepped, I stepped. Since I was walking so close to her, she asked me question after question. At one point she wanted to know if I had my papers. I told her we did not have to carry a pass.
She was surprised. She thought people of color had to travel with their freedom papers. I realized she was talking about the Emancipation Proclamation. She thought that this was such an important document that every black person must surely keep a copy close. Her words, then and now, reminded me of the symbolic importance and the continuing resonance of this proclamation.
As President Obama stands at the ready to be inaugurated as president for the second time, I hope that remembering the Emancipation Proclamation isn’t just a solemn look backward at a milestone in American history but an energizing guide for today’s challenges. After all, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation hangs in the Oval Office, where the President sits and conducts the business of our nation. Its presence there is a testament to its lasting power and influence.
Indeed, Abraham Lincoln’s words last, and echo with promise and boldness. One can only imagine how Lincoln’s declaration, announcing that some of the four million enslaved African Americans “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” was ultimately received by those who experienced generations of bondage. Yet the Emancipation Proclamation was not simply the creation of Lincoln. African Americans — enslaved and free — through their words and actions, forced the government to chart a new path, a creeping process of emancipation that is still unfolding 150 years later.
Despite its limited actual impact, the Emancipation Proclamation in those midnight hours of January 1, 1863, provided the road map that still furnishes hope for the contested and partisan times of today. It is that history of confronting and addressing issues that seem insurmountable that renews our faith in the power of words and in the possibility of meaningful change. I can’t help but notice that this year-long celebration takes place the same year we celebrate not only another Obama presidency, but also the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
As President Obama said in his victory speech late into the night in November, “Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.”
We need to meld the thoughts of our presidents — separated by these 150 years — and embrace the possibilities that follow when courage of thought and deed is married to bold and strategic leadership. And we need to look again to our history because the struggle to end slavery was not the only singular moment when activism — on the ground and within the chambers of government — was necessary to remind America of its vows. Witness the movement of the Great Migration, when southern families, so keen to reunite after the Civil War, took those found kin and their descendants and moved to cities with great expectations of work and progress.
Witness the dramatic change in America during the New Deal, helping to bring the country out of the Great Depression, giving a new look to many communities, and using a president’s words to inspire. Again, more than a quarter-century later, the 1963 March on Washington brought together ordinary citizens and a cadre of leaders of all races, to remind America of its promised check.
These are some watershed movements set in motion by the Emancipation Proclamation’s optimism that transformed America. It’s the direct approach in rallying around important issues of the day — then the paramount scar of slavery — that is important to emulate today. What we see within the short document is a clear lesson that America has always had the ability to grapple with the big issues. Now we have major challenges in employment, education, economics — and the legacy of watershed moments is that activism is needed. It is not something to be avoided or described as a lesson of the past.
The promise of the Emancipation Proclamation is tied to contemporary arguments of political gamesmanship, the boldness of leadership, the need to rebuild communities and an emotionally harmed population.
We are building a living record of that activism in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Those moments will be remembered and analyzed for what they achieved and where they fell short. Our stories will demonstrate that many footsteps shaped many social and political movements, and people were prepared to act when called on.
What is different now is that the transformative moment or goal may not be as obvious in a country that is now so splintered economically and racially. The progress, even since the 1963 March on Washington — a blink in history’s calendar — is evident. America was always on a better footing when people came together to push and demand that the country live up to its stated ideals.
But the example of those past events — one that all Americans shared — is to be ready for a moment, even if the day is not yet within view.
So this Inauguration Day should be a reminder that these events can be done. This is not the 19th century, with the overwhelming and destructive presence of slavery, dehumanization and forcefully separated families. But what exists for their familial and social descendants are shards of that injustice. Thinking about the 19th-century words and action from the people of goodwill, large and small, shows they sensed the fight would be won. With that in mind, the Emancipation Proclamation remains the model for 21st-century activism propelling us into another 150 years of changing America.
Lonnie G. Bunch III is the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
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