Lincoln to MLK: Have We Achieved the “New Birth of Freedom?”

Released: 15-Jan-2013 1:10 PM EST
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Newswise — As we enter 2013, the year of the 150th anniversary of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Gettysburg College Africana Studies and History Prof. Scott Hancock considers the journey, struggles and progress of African Americans since the Civil War era.

Just two weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation enactment anniversary and a few days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hancock connects Lincoln and MLK Jr. to that journey.

Hancock's thoughts on:

African Americans today:

For today’s descendants of the enslaved, the United States isn’t remotely the same as it was in 1863 or 1963 in terms of achieving life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But when federal and state governments create and maintain a criminal justice system that incarcerates African Americans for drug-related crimes anywhere from three to eight times more often than white Americans, despite statistics showing that white Americans commit drug-related crimes at the same or even higher rates than black Americans; when such an enormous chasm exists between black and white total household wealth that economists estimate that at current rates it will be more than four hundred years before we reach rough economic equity; when virtually every health-related statistic reveals a marked gap between black and white Americans’ potential to live a healthier life—when these realities persist, we know we haven’t moved nearly far enough.

The Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the American Civil War:

Among all commemorations of the Civil War, this year, 2013, carries greater potential symbolism than any other single year of current or past commemorations. This year grants the opportunity to connect the 150th commemorations of what may be the three most seminal and well-known events of the war—the Emancipation Proclamation, the battle at Gettysburg, and the Gettysburg Address—with the fiftieth anniversary of King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial. This year we should judge how close we are to the promise’s fulfillment.

The Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address:

Three hundred and twenty two days after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the two most famous speeches in American history. He vowed that soldiers who died at Gettysburg gave their lives for a “new birth of freedom” by securing the Union. For Lincoln, that included fulfilling the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation.

MLK Jr.:

Sixty-six years and fourteen days after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into a country that had betrayed the promise of emancipation. As the United States became an economic dynamo, the federal government systematically shut African Americans out of one of the most remarkable economic explosions in history and helped ensure that the country King grew up in would not fulfill Lincoln’s promises.

One hundred years, two hundred and thirty nine days after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, King delivered the other of the two most famous speeches in American history, reminding the crowd at the Lincoln memorial that “five score years ago a great American…signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

King knew the Proclamation was about more than ending slavery. When Americans learn about the “I Have a Dream Speech,” we often focus on its soaring rhetoric. We often forget that King said when “the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But that promissory note had been no more than a bad check “which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” King demanded that the check provide “the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” He understood what Lincoln either did not understand or did not want to articulate in 1863: that freedom without the security of benefitting from the economic and political stability that African Americans helped create was an empty freedom.

In summary:

As Americans, we have a great deal to be proud of. Commemorations are times to honor what our predecessors have done right—often in the face of lethal opposition—and figure out why they managed to press ahead. Commemorations are also times to consider where and why we have fallen short. That kind of considered commemoration might just help us fulfill the Emancipation Proclamation’s promise and realize King’s dream.

Scott Hancock is an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College. His scholarly interests focus on the African American experience from the mid-seventeenth century to just before the Civil War. His work considers African Americans’ engagement with the law in the north, and incorporates other disciplinary perspectives such as law & society and geography. He is particularly interested in how black interaction with the law in a variety of ways, from small disputes in lower courts to escaping via the underground railroad, shaped constitutional law, legal ideologies, black identity and U.S. society.


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