The 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is a reminder of how far we’ve come as a country — and the work still to be done

OPINION: The proclamation — issued Jan. 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln — didn’t bring immediate freedom for the approximately 4 million Black people living in enslavement at the time. But the document did lead to significant changes.

The Emancipation Proclamation is an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, during the American Civil War. (Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

There’s more to celebrate on Jan. 1 than the start of a new year. It’s the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln to declare an end to slavery in the Confederate states at war with the United States.

In reality, the proclamation didn’t bring immediate freedom for my own great-grandparents or for approximately 4 million other Black people living in enslavement at the time. That’s because Confederate forces fighting in the Civil War didn’t surrender until the spring of 1865. And four states that sided with the North in the war — Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri — still allowed slavery.

However, the proclamation had important effects.

First, it enabled Black men to officially join the Union Army. The idea of Black and white soldiers fighting side-by-side as equals was too radical for whites, so the War Department created the United States Colored Troops, led by white officers. Since it was impractical to have separate ships for Black and white sailors, both races served together in the Navy, but Blacks were barred from becoming officers and many formerly enslaved men held the lowest rank, known as “boy.”

Some 180,000 Black men served in the Union Army and 19,000 served in the Navy. More than 40,000 died in the Civil War. These heroic Black freedom fighters played a major role in saving the United States from breaking in two and in ending slavery.

Second, the Emancipation Proclamation helped persuade Britain and France not to enter the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, which both European nations were considering as a way of expanding their influence in the Americas. 

Because the proclamation cast the Civil War as a righteous fight to end slavery — an institution many Europeans opposed — British and French leaders decided to stay out of the conflict. Had the two powerful nations intervened on behalf of the Confederacy, the South might have prevailed in the war and slavery might have continued for years.

And finally, the Emancipation Proclamation paved the way for the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865, and at long last abolished slavery throughout the United States. 

Of course, the 13th Amendment didn’t end the systemic racism that has infected America with the virus of hatred since the first enslaved Africans were brought to this country in chains in 1619.

At the end of the Civil War, newly freed Black Americans had no money, owned no land, had been denied an education and faced legalized discrimination that barred them from many jobs, schools, public facilities and residential neighborhoods, as well as denying them the right to vote.  

Much has changed for the better since 1865, of course. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many heroes of the civil rights movement joined with white allies to win the enactment of laws outlawing racial discrimination, although in practice discrimination has stubbornly persisted. Tragically, Dr. King and too many others sacrificed their lives to give us our rights under the Constitution.

In my lifetime, Black people have reached the heights of power and achievement in government, business, academia, medicine, science, entertainment, sports and every other sector. 

Just looking at government, Barack Obama served for eight years as the first Black president of the United States, Kamala Harris is now serving as our first Black vice president, two Black men and one Black woman have served on the Supreme Court, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) will become the first Black leader of a party in Congress when he becomes House minority leader in January. 

Yet the legacy of slavery and centuries of racism remains with us today and is responsible for higher Black poverty, unemployment, imprisonment and rates of illness — and lower Black educational attainment, family income, homeownership and other benchmarks of attaining the American Dream. 

Unfortunately, many lawmakers remain in vehement opposition to affirmative action, anti-poverty programs, aid targeted to Black businesses, and to even considering the possibility of reparations to right the wrongs of the past and make America a more just and equitable nation. 

Obviously, we all know that no one alive today ever enslaved Black Americans. But that’s no excuse to say America as a nation has no responsibility to help the descendants of the enslaved overcome the racism that was, as many have said, America’s original sin.

On the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we should reflect on the wise words Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in a 1962 speech about the significance of the document.  

“If our nation had done nothing more in its whole history than to create just two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable,” Dr. King said. “The first of these documents is the Declaration of Independence and the other is … the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Explaining that the Emancipation Proclamation corrected the grave failure of the Declaration of Independence to extend the blessings of freedom and liberty to Black people by abolishing slavery, Dr. King said: “There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That is to make its declarations of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Donna Brazile Headshot

Donna Brazile is an ABC News Contributor, veteran political strategist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University. She previously served as interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. She managed the Gore campaign in 2000 and has lectured at more than 225 colleges and universities on race, diversity, women, leadership and restoring civility in politics. Brazile is the author of several books, including the New York Times’ bestseller “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.” @DonnaBrazile

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