The Emancipation Proclamation at 150: a miracle in need of an encore
Abraham Lincoln was a revered hero to my family, but Martin Luther King’s message is that the fight for justice is never over…
- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 20 September 2012 16.34 EDT
Like many African Americans, I grew up thinking of the Emancipation Proclamation as a totemic document. Abraham Lincoln – the ambiguity of his persona notwithstanding – was a kind of god to my family, an immortal whose words sparked a new epoch: a dream made manifest. The Emancipation Proclamation was magic – a tribute to power of naming to call forth something from nothing.
As an adult – and as a lawyer – I now see the Emancipation Proclamation as exemplary not only of the liberatory power of language, but of the complex relation between legal utterances and how they are put into effect by the institutions of government. The commands of executives and the sentences of judges depend on a supporting hierarchy of institutional actors, a faithful community of acolytes, a legion of believers in the justice of a particular system.
The violent word is always relatively easy to enact. For it is a complicated reality of our democracy that the general rituals of condemnation run with extreme efficiency: police, jurors, wardens, legislators coordinate who is disciplined or enfranchised, in or out of incarceration, dead or alive.
The liberatory word, on the other hand – that which commands new life, or orders political regeneration – that word always seems harder, more amorphous. Or is it, perhaps, that we don’t have the institutional hierarchy or community of agents who might be charged with regeneration and social healing?
If not magic then, I do think that the Emancipation Proclamation was a kind of miracle.
Today, we have urgent need of new proclamations from which new miracles might spring. For such a prodigiously endowed nation, the United States has the widest gap between rich and poor, among the most racially segregated educational systems in the developed world, and close to the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. We know this to be true. And yet, 46% of the American electorate support Mitt Romney for our next president – a man who recently disparaged the other “47%” who intend to support President Obama, as “victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it”.
Martin Luther King Jr called the American project an endless moral commitment; that commitment to regeneration seems endangered at the moment. If I had the power of magic words, I would speak into being an Edict of Education, a Provision of Health and Welfare, an Encyclical of Enfranchisement and a Mandate for a Goodly Mixing of our promised Melting Pot.