Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Free at Last!"

Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., is well-known by every USAmerican adult as that is the place where President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865.
Last week when I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in a hotel not far from Ford’s Theater, and I visited there for the first time. I expected to see only the inside of the theater and the balcony where Lincoln was sitting when he was tragically shot.
It was a pleasant surprise to find that there is a small, but excellent, museum under the theater, focusing, of course, on Lincoln’s life and work. While I was there I bought Who Was Abraham Lincoln? for my soon to be eight-year-old granddaughter Naomi.
Naomi’s new book naturally mentions the Emancipation Proclamation, which was announced by Lincoln 150 years ago this year, in September 1862, and which went into effect on January 1, 1863. That famous proclamation did not free all slaves though; it applied only to those in the Confederate states.
And, of course, there was no way to enforce the emancipation of slaves until the Union won the war. As Naomi’s book says, “Just because the proclamation told Southerners to free their slaves, it didn’t mean they would. Lincoln knew this. He said he felt like someone trying to make a law to change the behavior of a comet” (pp. 69-70).
Even with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery remained legal in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, for those four slave states stayed with the Union. Even though I was born and schooled through college in Missouri, I did not know (or remember?) until last year that Missouri, and some other States, also issued an emancipation proclamation.
On January 11, 1865, Governor Thomas Fletcher, nine days after assuming office, issued the proclamation freeing all the slaves in Missouri. Even though he was raised in a slave-owning family, he became an ardent abolitionist in his boyhood.
(Fletcher was born in 1827 just south of St. Louis in Herculaneum, and he became the first Missouri governor to be born in the state. He was a delegate to the 1860 Republican National Convention, where he supported the nomination of Lincoln for the presidency. Fletcher also served as a colonel for the Union army from 1862 to 1864.)
But, as everyone recognizes, in spite of slaves being emancipated in the Confederate states in 1863, in Missouri and elsewhere by proclamations in 1865, and then nationally by the ratification of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 6, 1865, much prejudice and discrimination toward former slaves and their descendants continued for more than a century and has not yet been fully eradicated.
It took the dream, as well as the life, of Martin Luther King, Jr., to further realize the full freedom of African-Americans. As we celebrate his birthday today and tomorrow, let us join in praying for and working for that day “when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’"


  1. Thanks, Leroy. I appreciate the historical information. And I'm pleased we celebrate MLK Day. That's something good about us.

  2. I did want to say, too, though, that we still have not and probably never will adequately address the effects of hundreds of years of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans. That's something not so good about us.

  3. This is the first I've heard of the Missouri emancipation proclamation.

  4. The slow process of emancipation well symbolizes the whole process that followed. For freed slaves did not immediately enjoy equality. Decades of Jim Crow, massive resistance, and informal and indirect discrimination have traced the fierce rearguard action against full equality. Today the wildly different views of whether racial (and sexual) discrimination is a major problem rest on the ways these informal and indirect structures are defined and evaluated. The fights over affirmative action illustrate this phenomenon. A legalistic argument that the government is "neutral" hides the face of modern discrimination.

    Today the results of discrimination are obscured by arguments that blame the poor instead of the system. For instance, the recent mortgage disaster has been blamed on the victims who were left with impossible mortgage agreements, rather than on the lenders and brokers who systematically created millions of such mortgages. Only slowly has the scope of culpability begun to become clear. Much of society was badly damaged by the Great Recession. Yet, even within this disaster, the distribution of damage was most uneven, with the result that the gap between white and black family net worth measurements has grown even worse.

    King's new monument in Washington shows him emerging from a mountain, like a force of nature. Considering the long, difficult process in which he is a leading light, I believe this is a most appropriate symbol. Yet, even that is not new. Two millennia ago, Jesus told us, "Pick up your cross and follow me." Freedom is never free. Lincoln's older monument reminds us that it never happens in an instant, even as Ford's Theater tells us how suddenly the price can become due.