At Obama’s Second Inauguration, How Emancipated Are We Really?

Emancipation? Sounds Great.

Inauguration Day approaches, and we’re all familiar by now that 2013 kicks off with the second inauguration of Barack Obama, on Martin Luther King Day, which also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. So many anniversaries. Is it just a curious coincidence? The connections are deeper than that.

To start with Emancipation. The declaration, effective 1 January 1863, proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate states to be forever free – but there had been emancipations before. In the revolutionary war, enslaved Africans were promised emancipation if they fought with the colonies against the British. Others later won their freedom through dint of hard work or escape, or both.

Emancipation wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. For one thing, the 1863 declaration didn’t cover people enslaved in Union states. In Kentucky and Delaware, 40,000 people had to wait two years for the 13th amendment and their freedom. Even in the revolutionary years, there was a problem: legal freedom didn’t necessarily come along with any means to freely live.

Eleanor Eldridge, the daughter of a fighter in the revolutionary war, gives an account of her father and his brother, slaves who fought bravely against all odds, and who were promised freedom and land in what was then Mohawk territory. She wrote:

“What were toils, privations, distresses, dangers? Did they not already see the morning star of freedom glimmering in the east? Were they not soon to exhibit one of the most glorious changes in nature? Were they not soon to start up from the rank of goods and chattels, into men?”

At the end of the war, the Eldridge brothers were in for a shock. Massive inflation and a financial crash made their reward money essentially worthless. To quote Eleanor Eldridge again:

“At the close of the war they were pronounced free; but their services were paid in the old money, the depreciation, and final ruin of which, left them no wealth but the one priceless gem, liberty … They were free. Having no funds, they could not go to take possession of their lands on the Mohawk. And to this day, their children have never been able to recover them.”

Eleanor goes on to describe how she and her husband worked to buy a home, the deed to which she finally lost in a mortgage scam in the 1800s. Sound familiar?

Harriet Tubman, the fugitive slave who led so many to freedom, described her escape this way:

“I looked at my hands, to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything … I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”

There was no welcome for the freed men and women of the 1860s, either. As Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow) have written, at exactly the time that former slaves were setting up their own communities and planting their own crops, the old slave-holding elites passed “anti-vagrancy” laws, which essentially made it a criminal offense to be self-employed or not working for a (white) boss. Easily arrested and convicted under the new laws, black “prisoners were forced to work for little or no pay”, writes Alexander. The 13th amendment’s anti-slavery provisions make a convenient exception for prison work.

So much for freedom. With no federal commitment to changing the power structure in the south, former slaveholders were able to use their political clout to legislate, and their economic might to arm mobs and the Ku Klux Klan. Between 1868 to 1876, most years saw 50-100 African Americans lynched.

Our own era has a lot in common with that one, the so-called Gilded Age. Then, as now, rich and poor were massively divided; industrialists and big bankers were battling it out with reformers, industrial workers, women, free blacks, and immigrants. Then and now, the nature of work, life, politics, and the demographics of the nation were all in flux. Many whites worried about the future of their “race”.

How emancipated are we today? It depends on whom you talk to and which questions you ask. Judged against slavery, today’s society is relatively free – but what a standard! To recall the Eldridges and Tubman, the means that people need to live freely are still stratified, and along the old tracks. Quality education, housing, work, health; we’ve legislated away the old “whites only” signs, but look at wealth, the most decisive indicator of access to any of those things.

The picture is revealing. Last year, researchers at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, based in Oakland, reported (pdf) that the median household wealth of a working-age African American woman was $100, compared to $42,600 for the equivalent white woman (or 40% more than that for a white man). It’s amazing the difference that centuries of supremacy make.

Dr King and his colleagues knew that change would come not from presidents but from movements. Presidents might move, but movements make them do it. Only movements have the emancipating power to make strength out of numbers, even numbers of the weak.

The March on Washington married a demand for freedom with a demand for jobs. Listen to how little the moneyed media give the march its complete name: the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs.

We could do with another march, but more importantly, another movement with equal punch. People like to say freedom isn’t free. But neither is emancipation: it costs the status quo. Emancipating a former slave state like ours takes a whole lot more than a declaration. We’re not there yet.