Biden commemorates 160th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation

The United States has yet to officially apologize for the enslavement of African Americans, and many scholars and activists have called for some form of reparations for decades.

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President Joe Biden this week commemorated the 160th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery during the Civil War. The proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863, is one of the nation’s most treasured documents for human freedom. 

A painting of Abraham Lincoln is seen as US President Joe Biden speaks on Covid-19 response in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC on January 26, 2021. – The number of confirmed coronavirus cases around the world on January 26 passed 100 million since the start of the pandemic, according to an AFP tally. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“On New Year’s Day, 160 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln changed America’s destiny forever. We were at the height of a raging Civil War, ‘a house divided’ along the dangerous fault line of slavery,” said President Biden in an official White House statement released Monday evening. 

With the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln ended slavery in rebellious states that had seceded from the Union, thereby granting freedom to the enslaved in those states. The executive order also admitted newly “freed” Black men into the Army and Navy to fight for their freedom, or as the National Archives notes, “[enabled] the liberated to become liberators.”

In his statement, Biden praised President Lincoln, who “engaged in months of cautious deliberation,” adding, “His duty, he felt, was to do more than what he personally believed was morally right, but to represent the will of a fractured people.”

Because the Emancipation Proclamation technically preserved the institution of slavery in states that remained within the Union, Biden acknowledged that Lincoln’s order “was not a perfect solution.” Still, he noted, “it began the active pursuit of perfection, the quest that persists to this day to realize the full promise of democracy in America.”

President Biden added, “With the stroke of a pen, President Lincoln aligned the future of our Nation with the challenge of our world, to end humanity’s war against itself, to recognize there is more that unites us than could ever divide us, and to finally reconcile ourselves with one another in peace.”

An exhibit of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is shown at the National Archives Building February 18, 2005 in Washington, DC. The document will go on a limited display, due to the poor quality of the paper and ink on the final draft that makes it vulnerable to light, as part of Black History Month. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As the country marks the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the history of slavery remains a thorny issue in the United States. A current political movement amongst conservatives has attempted to thwart or alter how slavery is taught in American classrooms in the form of anti-critical race theory. The Republican-led efforts emerged in the years after the publishing of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning, “The 1619 Project,” which reexamines slavery and the role of African Americans in pushing the United States closer to its ideal of democracy and liberty for all.

The United States has also yet to officially apologize for the enslavement of African Americans, and many scholars and activists have for decades called for some form of reparations. In Congress, there have been many attempts to pass H.R. 40, or the  Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. The bill, which was first introduced by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., would create a commission to study the history of slavery and potential reparations. However, despite being introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives several times since 1989, it has yet to advance out of committee and to a floor vote.

As theGrio previously reported, Black advocates, with support from some members of Congress, have called on President Biden to sign an executive order that would essentially do what H.R. 40 aimed to do, given congressional inaction. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden said that he supports a reparations commission and would sign H.R. 40 if passed by Congress. When asked by theGrio last summer whether Biden would instead sign an executive order, the White House said, “The president’s position hasn’t changed.”

As the 118th Congress is sworn into office on Jan. 3, President Biden will now govern with a divided Congress, as Republicans will hold a slim majority in the House. The chance of H.R. 40 being passed in this Congress remains unlikely.

WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 13: President Joe Biden gives Vice President Kamala Harris the pen he used to sign H.R. 8404, The Respect for Marriage Act, into law during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In his statement acknowledging the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Biden projected a message of unity and bipartisanship — something he hopes will continue in the next Congress.

“Let us rejoice that freedom is our goal, and let us set aside our differences, break through bitter and divisive partisanship, our finger pointing and blame, and rise up to meet our great calling as a Nation,” the president said. 

“Let us do all we can in 2023 to create ‘a new birth of freedom’ in the United States and ensure that ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish,’ but will shine like a sun, a beacon to all people, demonstrating that from the many our great Nation can become one.”

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