Let my people go, Why America has failed to live up to the Emancipation Proclamation?

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On January 1st 1863 approaching the third year of the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” This proclamation did not go far enough since it left slavery untouched in the loyal border states. States like Maryland, the President’s own birth state of Kentucky, West Virginia and Washington, DC maintained their slaves. The result though was that every advance of the Union Army expanded the domain of free land for blacks . It thus allowed more blacks to enlist in the Union Army. By the end of the war almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

As unjust as it may be, there are other accounts of slavery in history; the book of Exodus in the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah is one of the most well documented.

5It was told the king of Egypt that the people fled; and the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was turned against the people, and they said, “Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?”

And he made ready his chariot and took his people with him,

7 and he took six hundred chosen chariots and all the chariots of Egypt and captains over every one of them.” Exodus Chapter 14 vrs 5 – 7

Pharaoh’s army engulfed by the Red Sea, oil on canvas, by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

In a way when I look at the history of America I see a similar pattern of behavior with regards to America and the emancipation of slaves. January 1, 2021 will mark the 160th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation but many black Americans today do not feel they are enjoying the full benefits of freedom in this country. I will use a few historical accounts to illustrate my point

40 Acres and a Mule

On January 12, 1865 towards the end of the civil war General William Tecumseh Sherman and Edwin McMasters Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of war had a meeting with leaders of the black community mostly ministers. At this meeting they asked these leaders what they wanted for their community after the civil war. The leaders requested for 40 acres of tillable land for each family. The black leaders of the day did not believe that in an agrarian economy freedom without a piece of land on which to eke out a livelihood was practical.

By June 1865, 40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of what became known as ‘Sherman Land.’ Sherman later ordered that the army could lend the new settlers mules; hence the phrase, “40 acres and a mule” This order by Sherman was reversed by Andrew Johnson who took office after Lincoln’s assassination. The many black families who settled on ‘Sherman land’ had to return the lands mostly on the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts to the original Southern planter owner. Men, most of whom had fought against the Union.

Post Civil War Reconstruction

Under the Andrew Johnson administration Southern States enacted laws mostly targeted towards controlling the behaviour of freed black slaves and other African Americans. The laws were described as black codes and drew a lot outrage from the North. This gave way to a more progressive wing of the Republican party. These progressive Republicans were outraged and pushed in Congress for the passage of the Reconstruction Act of 1867. With this act newly enfranchised blacks gained a voice in government for the first time in American history, winning election to southern state legislatures and even to the U.S. Congress. Freedom did not come with civil rights. Blacks both in the North and Southern States could not vote till the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Over a decade later the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization sometimes described as America’s own right wing domestic terrorist organization used intimidation, threats and outright violence against blacks to reverse all these gains.

The Ku Klux Klan & the Rise of Jim Crow

Established in 1865 in Pulaski Tennessee by 1870 the Ku Klux Klan had a branch in every Southern State. The prevailing narrative was that Klan membership was limited to mostly poor whites but records suggest klan members ranged from small farmers, laborers, planters, lawyers, merchants, physicians and ministers. In many places with the worst Klan activities many law enforcements officers were members of the clan or refused to take action against Klan activity.

To control Klan activities, congress enacted the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. This act was used by General Ulysees S Grant to crash Klan activity in South Carolina and other areas. This federal action to protect the lives and nominal rights of blacks enraged democrats and many republicans. Resistance to strong arm tactics by federal authorities resulted in the whole of the South switching to Democratic control by 1876. This was followed by the nationwide enactment of Jim Crow laws designed to shut out black Americans from both political and economic power.

Jim Crow laws effectively reversed any political gains made by blacks and resulted in systemic disenfranchisement of Southern Blacks till Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil righta act of 1965.

These three stories illustrates America’s often ambiguous relationship with issues of slavery and race. It appears that after emancipation America or a significant group of Americans still yearn for its slave days. I believe many of those with nostalgia for the confederacy belong to this group.

To the many who yearn for and want to get on their chariots to chase the African slaves. To these individuals I would say; go back to the Book of Exodus to be reminded of the plight of the Egyptians who followed the Israelites into the Red Sea.

Shalom, have a good day !

By Leonard Sowah a physician in Baltimore, Maryland

Feature photo: Lincolns second inaugural address. March 4th, 1865; Source: Library of Congress


A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan