The high jinks on Capitol Hill the last few days obscured, but only partially, the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the nation’s most revered documents.
Signed early on Jan. 1, 1863, the proclamation freed the slaves in states over which the federal government temporarily did not hold dominion. But it was the beginning of the end for an injustice the Founding Fathers had recognized decades earlier, and yet had not the political will to end as they struggled to form a republic.
President Abraham Lincoln himself came only slowly, and incompletely, to his commitment to free an estimated 4 million slaves, many of whom were already rebelling at their servitude in the South. His motivations were many, but a belief blacks were equal to whites was not among them.
Still, the proclamation became the foundation for the Thirteenth Amendment, which accomplished forever the abolishment of slavery throughout the country, and the Fifteenth, which forbid any abridgement of voting rights by race. But we know that was not the end of discrimination in any of its forms. Slavery as ownership of another human being may have ended, but servitude by other means continued for decades. Violence against blacks, savage and unpunished, continued for another century.
The Inland Northwest knows well that the fight goes on against white supremacists who would carve a haven for their antebellum beliefs.
And slavery in other forms persists; against women, against immigrants, against children. Human trafficking is an estimated $32 billion business worldwide, and the tentacles reach into the United States.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, an effort by state attorneys general to bring more attention to the issue, and solutions. Washington, led by outgoing Attorney General Rob McKenna, has been among the states most progressively fighting the problem.
Despite the Fifteenth Amendment, equal access to the polls remains an issue. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 wiped away the Jim Crow laws that prevented blacks from casting ballots, and provided extra safeguards in nine states with a history of abuses. Some states contested those safeguards before the November election, provoking a heartening backlash from minority group voters, who stormed the polls.
The U.S. Supreme Court will review those safeguards to determine if they are still necessary. A ruling is expected by July.
The tax measure enacted New Year’s Day delays, but does not end, the nation’s reckoning with its irresponsible fiscal behavior. Nor did the Emancipation Proclamation end the work of freeing slaves, not domestically, and certainly not internationally.
“Sincerely believed to be an act of justice,” as Lincoln wrote, the proclamation and its goals remain an aspiration.