“I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated states, and parts of states, are, and henceforward shall be, free.” It is this one brief sentence that truly sparked a revolution and changed the course of history for our nation and for all African-Americans. The pleas of Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists had been heeded, and millions of slaves found freedom.
February is Black History Month, often a time when we join together as Americans to celebrate the many achievements and contributions of African-Americans. But we should also remember that this month is the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, a larger-than-life patriot who played a significant role in guiding our nation through one of its most divisive periods.
On Jan. 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It changed the federal legal status of more than 3 million enslaved people in the designated areas of the South from slave to free. When Lincoln issued the decree, he described it not only as “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion” but an “act of justice.” As an African-American, the importance of this document went beyond ending slavery to giving people a whole new meaning of achieving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
For the collective consciousness of African-Americans, the Emancipation Proclamation marked a radical change in a path to full citizenship and ignited aspirations to achieve rights as Americans. The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln's effort to begin to mend our nation’s ills and right one of our biggest wrongs. It was also a way of bringing a close to the war and beginning a healing process.
The Proclamation did not end slavery overnight. Despite its symbolic significance, the Proclamation was a military document aimed at Confederate states and it did not abolish the institution of slavery in the United States. Abolition came with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was presented to the states with a joint resolution that Lincoln signed on Feb. 1, 1865.
Change and healing remain works in progress in America. After 100 years of struggle, our society continues the arduous work of eradicating the systemic issues rooted in slavery and fully realizing civil rights for all. As we reflect on President Lincoln’s legacy and have the rare opportunity to glimpse this original document, I am heartened by the progress the Proclamation put in motion, and, more importantly, I am reinvigorated by its light of promise, which burns with equal relevance to contemporary citizens of this nation.
We all must remember that the Emancipation Proclamation, and other significant historical documents, are just not pieces of old paper that reside in grand museums. They embody the true story of our shared past and remind us why we as a people chose to form a nation of ideals. And, more importantly, they serve as our societal conscience, urging us to continue striving towards the greater good.
For the millions of Americans who will celebrate President Lincoln this month, to all who will honor the achievements of African-Americans and their role in our nation’s story, and to the thousands who will stand in line to catch a glimpse of the Emancipation Proclamation, I hope you will see that brave words written so many years ago can unite our nation, strengthen our democracy and inspire a vigor to forge even further ahead.
Michael K. Powell is president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and current board member of the National Archives Foundation, an independent nonprofit that aims to increase public awareness of the National Archives and inspire a deeper appreciation of our country’s heritage.