Even After 150 Years, People Still Disagree on the Emancipation Proclamation Signed by President Abraham Lincoln

Growing up in Alabama after World War II, the boy who would become the civil rights hero John Lewis spent New Year's with his sharecropper family at services in a small cinderblock Baptist church outside town.

He heard grandparents repeat their grandparents' stories about plantation life -- bondage, resistance, escape. The congregation sang spirituals, field songs, freedom songs. The story of emancipation was told in skits, with congregants dressed as heroes such as Tubman, Douglass and Lincoln.

This was Watch Night, when the faithful waited for the new year as their ancestors had waited for midnight on Dec. 31, 1862. The following day, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves across the South.

Lewis, today a congressman from Georgia, never forgot those annual celebrations of freedom by people who couldn't legally check a book out of the public library. He says when he was nearly beaten to death during the Freedom Rides in 1961 and at the Selma march in 1965, "those stories inspired me to keep going."

Over the years and across the land, they helped shape what Alabama State University archivist Howard Robinson II calls "a common African-American consciousness."

The nation has just re-elected an African-American president who hangs in his Oval Office a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. This, the executive order's 150th anniversary, is the first major one when black people can fairly be called free.

The sesquicentennial is being marked by speeches, ceremonies, books, exhibits, conferences and services. You can visit the Smithsonian and see the inkstand Lincoln used when he drafted it; you can go to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston and see the pen he used to sign it.

But on this anniversary, no less than its first or its 100th, Americans are still working through why and how the Emancipation Proclamation came into being, what it meant, and what it wrought.

It's a subject on which Americans have long disagreed. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that the date Jan. 1, 1863, was greater even than July 4, 1776. William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of State, called the decree as ephemeral as "a puff of wind." In 1948, Columbia historian Richard Hofstader wrote that it "had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading."

Whatever you think of it, there is nothing else in U.S. history like the Emancipation Proclamation.

It was the product of a most difficult decision by a most complex president during a most crucial conflict. It ordered the largest single confiscation of private property in U.S. history. And before Gettysburg, Appomattox and the Second Inaugural, it ensured Lincoln his spot in the American pantheon.

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Rick Hampson
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