By Martin Luther King, Jr., December 1962 Issue
This article appeared as part of a special issue of the Progressive marking the one-hundreth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation
Mankind through the ages has been engaged in a ceaseless struggle to give dignity and meaning to human life. If, in its effort to achieve this goal, our nation had done nothing more in its whole history than to create just two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable. The first of these documents is the Declaration of Independence, and the other is that which we honor on its one-hundredth anniversary, the Emancipation Proclamation. All tyrants, past, present, and future, are powerless to bury the truths in these declarations, no matter how extensive their legions, how vast their power, and how malignant their evil.
The Declaration of Independence proclaimed to a world organized politically and spiritually around the concept of the inequality of man that liberty was inherent in man as a living being; that he could not create a lasting society if it alienated freedom from man. The Emancipation Proclamation was the offspring of the Declaration of Independence. It used the force of law to uproot a social order which sought to separate liberty from a segment of humanity.
Our pride and our progress could be unqualified if the story ended here. But history reveals that these documents were each to live lives of stormy contradictions to be both observed and violated through social upheavals and spiritual disasters.
If we look at our history with honesty and clarity, we will be forced to admit that our Federal form of government has been, from the day of its birth, weakened in its integrity, confused and confounded in its direction, by the unresolved race question. It is as if a political drug taken during pregnancy caused the birth of a crippled nation. We seldom accord adequate significance to the fact that Thomas Jefferson's text of the Declaration of Independence was revised by the Continental Congress to eliminate an attack on the slave trade.
It was expunged lest it offend the Southern Representatives, just as even now racial legislation is emasculated or discarded lest it, too, give offense to the South. Jefferson knew that such compromises with pripciple struck at the heart of the nation's security and integrity. In 182O, six years before his death, he wrote these melancholy words:
"But this momentous question [slavery], like a the bell in the night awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776 to acquire self-government and happiness to their country is to be thrown away, and my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it."
One region of our nation has waged a ceaseless rebellion against the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Supreme Court. In the Revolutionary War powerful slave interests in the South fought with the British. The development of the nation to the West was complicated and hindered by the slave power. The rebellion against equality continued into the second half of the Nineteenth Century and on into the Twentieth Century, diminishing and corroding the authority of the Federal government. It has contaminated every institution in our society in every year of our existence. Even today a single region of our country holds a veto power over the majority of the nation, nullifying basic constitutional rights, and, in the exercise of its illegal conduct, retards our growth. The South, in walling itself off from the application of laws and judicial decrees behind an iron curtain of defiance, has tried to be a law unto itself. It is an autonomous region whose attitude toward the central government is in some aspects as defiant as a hostile nation. This is the source of the scorn expressed by African and Asian states when we lecture them on government while our own suffers from a glaring defect of sovereignty.
The unresolved race question is a pathological infection in our social and political anatomy, which has sickened us throughout our history. How has our social health been injured by this condition? The legacy is the impairment of the lives of nearly 20,000,000 of our citizens. Based solely on their color, Negroes have been condemned to a sub-existence, never sharing the fruits of progress equally. The average income of Ne groes is approximately $3,900 per family annually compared to $5,800 for white citizens. This differential, tragic though it is, tells only part of the story. The more terrible aspect is found in the inner structure and quality of the Negro community. It is a community artificially but effectively separated from the dominant culture of our society. It has a pathetically small and grotesquely distorted middle class. The overwhelming majority of Negroes are domestics, laborers, and always the largest segment of the unemployed. If employment entails heavy work, if the wages are miserable, if the filth is revolting, the job belongs to the Negro.
Every Negro knows these truths, and his personality is corroded by a sense of inferiority, generated by this degraded status. Negroes, North and South, still live in segregation, housed in unendurable slums, eat in segregation, pray in segregation, and die in segregation. The life experience of the Negro in integration remains a rare exception even in the North.
This is the essential texture of freedom and equality for the Negro one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and one hundred and eighty-six years after the Declaration of Independence. This somber picture may introduce the sober thought that there is nothing to commemorate on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, tragic disappointments and undeserved defeats do not put an end to life, nor do they wipe out the positive aspects, however submerged beneath floods of negative experience.
The Emancipation Proclamation yielded four enduring results. First, it gave force to the executive power to change conditions in the national interest on a broad and far-reaching scale. Second, it dealt a devastating blow to a system of slave-holding and an economy based upon it which had been muscular enough to engage in warfare on the Federal government. It forced a change which limited the area of maneuver in which enemies of the Constitution might deploy. Third, it enabled the Negro to play a significant role in his own liberation tbrough his new ability to organize and to struggle, with less of the bestial retaliation his slave status had permitted to his masters. Fourth, it resurrected and restated the principle of equality upon which the founding of the nation rested.
Our truly great Presidents were tortured deep in their hearts by the race question. Jefferson saw with keen perception that the immorality of slavery degraded the white master as well as the Negro. He expressed fears for the future of white children who are taught a false supremacy. His concern can be summed up in one quotation, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation it was not the act of an opportunistic politician issuing a hollow pronouncement to placate a pressure group. Lincoln's torments are well known; his vacillations were facts. In the seething cauldron of 1862 and 1863, Lincoln was called the "Baboon President" in the North, and coward, assassin, savage, murderer of women and babies, and "Lincoln the Fiend" in the South, Yet he searched his way to the conclusions embodied in the words, "in giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free, honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve." On this moral foundation he prepared the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, and to emphasize the decisiveness of his course he called his cabinet together and declared he was not seeking their advice as to its wisdom but only suggestions on subject matter.
Lincoln achieved immortality because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. His hesitation had not stayed his hand when historic necessity charted but one course. No President can be great, or measure up to his responsibilities, if he attempts to accommodate to injustice to maintain his political balance.
The Emancipation Proclamation shattered the slave system, undermining the foundations of the economy of the rebellious South, and guaranteed that no slave holding class could prepare a new and deadlier war after resuscitation. The Proclamation opened the door to self-liberation for the Negro; he immediately acted by deserting the plantations in the South and joining the Union armies in the North. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seeing a regiment of Negroes march through Beacon Street in Boston, wrote in his diary, "An imposing sight, with something wild and strange about it, like a dream. At last the North consents to let the Negro fight for freedom."
The world significance of the Emancipation Proclamation was colorfully described by another great American, Frederick Douglass, in these words: "It recognizes and declares the real nature of the contest and places the North on the side of justice and civilization ... Unquestionably the first of January, 1963, is to be the most memorable day in American annals. The Fourth of July was great, but the First of January, when we consider it in all its relations and bearings, is incomparably greater. The one had respect to the mere political birth of a nation; the last concerns the national life and character and is to determine whether that life and character shall be radiantly glorious with all high and noble virtues, or infamously blackened forevermore."
There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That is to make its declaration 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.
We do not have as much time as the cautious try to give us. We are not only living in a time of cataclysmic change--we live in an era in which human rights is the central world issue. A totally new political phenomena has arisen from the rubble and destruction of World War II. A neutralist sector has established itself between the two contending camps of the world. More than a billion people are in the neutralist arena. One basic reason for the neutrality of these nations is that they do not trust the integrity of either East or West on the issue of equality and human rights. Our declarations that we are making progress in race relations ring in their ears with pathetic emptiness. In India, Indonesia, Ghana, and Brazil, to mention a few nations which together contain almost a billion humans, the right to vote has been exercised even by illiterate peasants in primitive villages still ringed by jungle. In some of our cities in the South, college professors cannot vote, cannot eat, and cannot use a library or a park in equality. In Africa, Negroes have formed states, govern themselves, and function in world tribunals with dignity and effectiveness.
The simple act is that the relative progress in undeveloped sectors of the world in human rights races at jet speed, while we strain in a horse and buggy for advancement. We are not moving in the world tempo of change. Worse still, as the earth is shrunk by the revolution in communication, and the shams of Little Rock, Albany, and Oxford flash around the globe, the world is becoming more aware of our deficiencies. Floods of consumer goods, superhighways, supermarkeus, and tel-stars do not obscure the existence of scabrous prejudice; and this fact more than any other explains why more emerging nations move away from us than toward us. The touchstone is not the sophistication of our industrial devices, but our commitment to freedom and equality. Without faith that we are wedded to these truths, our power and strength become a menace to other peoples, and they will maintain their distance until we have justified their confidence.
The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation is a particular reminder that the forceful, extensive use of executive power is deeply rooted in our tradition. Lincoln used his executive authority to forge the main link of a social revolution. Never before and never since has a President so changed the economy, so renewed the fundamental rights of humans, or expropriated such billions in private property with an executive order. Lincoln's immense exercise of power should have made it easier for the Presidents who followed him to do the lesser deeds which are needed to realize complete emancipation. Yet it is a tragic fact that in the succeeding hundred years no President has possessed the daring or the will to make his office a truly effective instrument for change.
There is an effective, simple approach. It rejects high-wire acrobatics. The first President to use it will be the first President since Lincoln to use executive authority for civil rights as power, not as a probe. When a contemporary President declares that segregation and inequality are morally and legally indefensible and that enough time has expired for all who will to adjust, and that all the massive resources of the Federal government will enforce every constitutional right of Negroes, he will split the reluctant and resisting South in two. More than half will accept the new conditions almost willingly when they confront a resolute and determined government. The others will split further into those who will accept and comply, though unhappily. A small minority, isolated in criminality, will seek to resist. Their opposition will crumble before an implacable government, and desegregation across the South could be achieved in less than a year.
The key to everything is Federal commitment, full, unequivocal, and unremitting. When the President declares that the security of the nation, its sacred honor, and its future are inseparable from its civil rights, and that every facility of government, every department will operate strictly on that principle, on that day the knell of resistance will ring.
This is not a visionary dream, an ideal conception, an extremist demand. It is practical, as the Emancipation Proclamation was practical, because it is necessary for the public good. It is simple, as the Emancipation Proclamation was simple. Its time has come. Neither North nor South can endure the Mississippi experience long into the troubled future. When a Federal army, virtually all the regular Marshals in the country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Guard, the Justice Department, the White House staff, and the chief Executive must all be mobilized as a military force to register one single Negro in college, the ironic tragedy threatens to cancel out the undeniable triumph. The Oxford, Mississippi, affair was ts triumph because the Administration did not flinch and let no one doubt its determination; but it was tragedy, too, that it was necessary to exert so much effort for but one Negro, symbolic though he be.
There are twenty million Negroes in the United States. Each lives impaired by a disability not of his making. Our era cries for the moral spirit abroad in 1862 when the Emancipation Proclamation revolutionised an entire nation. There are those who may feel that I am excessively optimistic about the white South. I am optimistic, and I always have been. I place less responsibility on the moderate Southerner than upon the Administration in Washington. Millions of Southerners would have complied if the sense of inevitability felt In 1955 had been girded by government action. Without Federal commitment, they were left to act alone, often to sacrifice everything. Many Negroes could and did do this, but it is neither realistic nor fair to expect it of the Southern white, however much his guilt may torment him. Self-preservation survives and surmounts most guilt feelings. Yet, the Federal government had no such agonizing choices. It could have acted but did not. It dissipated vast potential support, and then rationalized inaction as necessary until support could be organized.
Today, optimism can be justified by recent but little noted electoral results. Georgia is a striking laboratory specimen. It is deep South in tradition. It has some urban centers which are large, complex, and sophisticated. It has regions almost as backward, remote, and isolated as villages in Latin America. Yet two interacting forces have quietly revolutionized public opinion, creating significant changes. One force is the growth of the Negro vote. Laboriously, with pitifully little help from outside, governmental or voluntary, Negroes have chipped away passages in the walls barring them from the ballot.
Simultaneously, a second historic Supreme Court decision required reapportionment and fairer representation for electoral majorities. As a direct consequence of these changes, moderates have been elected as the mayor of Atlanta, as Congressmen from Fulton County (the most populous county of the state), and, in September, a moderate, on a state-wide basis, crushed a rabid segregationist in a gubernatorial election in which the race issue towered above all others. Moderates are finding a foothold, aided by Negroes who have dared to vote, sacrificed to organize, and risked physical maltreatment to make their grievances known. White moderates in many regions now count on the Negro and have made the inner adjustment which qualified them to be representative. Segregationists are being forced into a defensive position.
In 1862, the Negro in the North implored the Federal government to admit him into the Union army, and to free the slaves in the South so that they might unite with their liberators. One hundred years later, Negroes are still seeking an active alliance with the Federal government to make their freedom a reality. They neither want nor expect the government to do the job alone; they do not ask it to deliver freedom on a platter while they furnish the appetite. But on the other hand, they do not expect to be left alone to reorder a society. They do not want the Federal power to stand on the sidelines until disaster blackens the skies. Initiatives by the Negro movement, coordinated with willing, active, and extensive support of government, can transform ripened situations, without violence, into the fruit of democratic victory.
Some years ago Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., polled historians for their ratings of Presidents of the past. Leading the list of "Great Presidents" was Lincoln. The basis for eminence was not personal magnetism but was derived from the "sense of history" possessed by those Presidents who had identified themselves with a great turning point in the history of their time. A turning point has occurred again in the sixty-second year of the Twentieth Century. The day has come for a modern Emancipation Proclamation. If the President moves with the growing forces of history and makes the turn with the resolute determination Lincoln displayed one hundred years ago, another honorable page will be written in our nation's dedication to the luminous promise of democracy.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., has emerged during the past decade as the leader of the Negroes' nonviolent struggle against discrimination. He is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association which sponsored the successful bus boycott in Montgomery. He wrote "Stride Toward Freedom."