Remembering freedom's start

Few documents in American history are celebrated like the Declaration of Independence is for the Fourth of July.

However, for African-Americans, the Fourth of July comes Jan. 1.

That is when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1864, stating that "...all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free..."

On Jan. 1 - 146 years later - a crowd of 77 people gathered at St. Thomas Grove Baptist Church in Barnwell County for the Emancipation Day program to celebrate that freedom. The event was sponsored by the Barnwell-Blackville branch of the NAACP.

The theme of this year's program was "Embarking on the Path of New Beginnings." S.C. Rep. Lonnie Hosey was the master of ceremony.

"To embark on new beginnings we need to have a mind change," said the Rev. John Young, the pastor of St. Thomas Grove Baptist Church.

In his speech, Young warned the crowd that although African-Americans are becoming affluent in material possessions, they should not let themselves become poor in moral or spiritual riches.

"You must still love your neighbor or else you are no better than being enslaved," he said.

The younger people now are richer than their previous generations, but some are falling into disrespectful behaviors or being drawn into gangs. Also youth today are not noting the struggle of the early civil rights pioneers to gain the liberties and respect they are enjoying now, Young said.

"We should remember where we come from," he said.

Young also warned that although African-Americans have scored a victory in the election of the first African-American president in Barack Obama, they should not become complacent when African-Americans still are facing problems like drugs, high teen pregnancies, high incarceration rates and poverty, he said.

However, Young said to maintain faith in God for solutions, the "same God who delivered our forbearers."

Historically, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves in 1863, but only those defined in the document from the Southern states of the Confederacy and bordering states and territories that were pro-Confederate.

Lincoln balanced the demands of abolitionists and radical Republicans of his party who called for full emancipation against the sensitivities of the border states and territories. Alienating these border regions with his administration's policies might cause these areas to side with the Rebels and give the Confederacy the critical mass it needed for an overall victory.

Hence, the Emancipation Proclamation was carefully worded in defining the areas in which slaves were freed - those not already under Union control.

William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, noted for history the paradox of the proclamation.

"We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free," Seward wrote.

However, the Emancipation Proclamation gave blacks permission to fight for the Union if they desired.

Lincoln's prosecution of the war primarily had been about preserving the Union. With the Emancipation Proclamation, it officially bound the issue of slavery to the war itself.

Janice Livingston, one of the program's speakers, urged the crowd to teach today's youth about the Emancipation Proclamation and the battles fought by the NAACP, the National Urban League and black churches for the rights of African-Americans.

"They united people against injustice for the right to vote. We can proudly and truly say we have overcome and elected the first African-American president. We can say God has truly blessed us," she said.

Hosey echoed similar comments.

"This is the reason we are here today - 146 years of emancipation. Some say we should stop this service (the Emancipation Day ceremony). We need to let our children know we came this way," he said.