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Did Lincoln Really Free the Slaves?

August 15, 2011

Sitting casually on the edge of his desk, adjunct lecturer Graig Klein asks his students in “Modern Black Political Thought” a deceptively simple question: What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

Issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the height of the Civil War in 1863, the proclamation is commonly believed to have outlawed slavery—a belief that most of Klein’s students shared prior to taking his course. Now they know better.

“It did free the slaves—but not all of them,” one student volunteers. It’s a nuanced point, which Klein confirms. “The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in those states under Confederate control,” he says. “It didn’t affect slavery in the North.”

The reason is that, contrary to popular belief, Lincoln’s primary motivation wasn’t to free the slaves but to win the Civil War and reunite the Republic.

Historic ultimatum

“The proclamation gave the South 100 days to end their rebellion,” Klein explains to the class. “If the South complied, slavery could continue. If they kept fighting, their slaves would be freed and could be drafted into the Union army.”

The elimination of slavery, together with the addition of black troops to the Union military contingent, would destroy the South’s economy and hobble its war effort. “In other words, the proclamation was an instrument of war,” says Klein.

“It gave the South an ultimatum—not to end slavery but to end the war.”

In 1865, of course, the South did surrender and slavery was abolished nationwide by the 13th Amendment. “But there is something unusual about the 13th Amendment,” Klein notes.

“It’s very short,” says a student.

In fact, it’s only two sentences long, underscoring another common misconception: Beyond outlawing slavery, “the 13th Amendment says nothing about inequality  or racism,” says Klein. Nor had Lincoln ever addressed those concerns, notwithstanding his place in history as the Great Emancipator.

“He was against slavery, but never spoke out against inequality,” Klein notes. And the abolitionists, who fought to end slavery, wanted the freed blacks to be sent back to Africa.

“It wasn’t for another four years and the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments, that the country began to deal with issues like inequality, discrimination and voting rights,” Klein says.

For many of Klein’s students these are fresh revelations. “It surprised me to learn that the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t to abolish slavery and benefit black people,” says liberal arts major Nedge Victome. “There were ulterior motives behind it.”

Music major Jasmine Adams agrees. “When you hear about the Emancipation Proclamation, you think freedom and inequality,” she says. “So today’s class was a real light bulb moment for me.”

Today’s class focuses on a brief but pivotal period—from the Emancipation Proclamation through Reconstruction. But the historical sweep of the course—cross-listed as AFN 152 and Political Science 152—extends from colonial times to the Obama administration and covers the origins of nationalist ideologies and political and social action in the U.S., the Caribbean and Africa. Texts include the writings and speeches of such seminal figures as Frederick Douglass, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey.

The impact of history

“One of the things I’ve found so interesting about this course is that historical events that took place more than a century ago continue to impact us in the present,” says Vladimir Tobar, who plans to major in anthropology.

Creating that awareness, says Klein, is his chief objective. “I believe that if you want to understand the American political system, you need to understand minority politics,” he says. “So we begin the course by looking at the role played by the black community and its leaders on the American political stage.”

The goal, he says, “is for students to come away with new insights into how black political thought affects what is happening in America today and in their daily lives.”

Students also come away with a new understanding of American history and their place in it. “I’m 31 and African-American and never knew any of this,” says Nikia Macklin. “All I knew was the my family was from Memphis, Tennessee, my great-uncle was a slave, and that eventually my family moved to New York. Learning the facts has been both enlightening and empowering.”

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  • Course in Modern Black Political Thought examines the impact of minority politics on U.S. history—and students’ daily lives
  • Texts include the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass and Kwame Nkrumah among others
  • Course aims to enlighten and empower students—and dispel misconceptions

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