FROM 1863 TO 2013 THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES …
by Keith Weldon Medley
The year 2013 highlights the connection between the March on Washington in 1963 and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Those hundred years span the beginning of the end of slavery and the beginning of the end of Jim Crow.
The spirit for liberty never died. In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights and labor leaders organized the March on Washington to demand equality for all along with jobs and justice. On this the 50th anniversary of that sacred occasion, people throughout the nation reflected on civil rights history, victories and the challenges ahead.
As we observed the March on Washington in 2013, we remained cognizant of organizations and individuals such as the Comite de Citoyens in the 1890s, the Niagara Movement in 1905, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality in the 1940s through 1960s, and most importantly, the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights movement that suffered the blows and stood their ground for liberty.
New Orleans has its own civil rights history, stories and heroes. They too fought for liberty and justice before, during and after the Civil War.
There were people like Thomy Lafon who lived in Tremé his entire life and donated heavily to the Anti-slavery Society and the Underground Railroad. Then there was Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez who published The New Orleans Tribune, the nation’s first Black daily, and demanded voting rights. The march from slavery fueled the amendments to abolish it, to grant suffrage to Black males, and to demand equality.
Emancipation in New Orleans!
On Jan. 1, 1863, slaves and abolitionists received confirmation that the Emancipation Proclamation had been put into effect. Although it took the adoption of the 13th amendment to abolish slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation marked the beginning of the end to slavery as Union troops passed out copies of the document to the slaves they encountered while fighting the Civil War.
Since that time, generations of people of African descent have used the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to reflect on where they have come from, where they now stand, and where they are going.
Slavery has been called “America’s Original Sin”. Here was a nation that prided itself on freedom; but were the human beings in bondage who were denied their fundamental rights. Lincoln may have issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but it was abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison who labored for decades to obtain freedom for all. It was patriots like John Brown who gave their blood for the cause of freedom.
An Integrated Rally in 1863
In New Orleans, the first integrated civil rights’ rally took place at the foot of Canal Street on July 4, 1863. On that day, the Loyal National League of Louisiana – a group of Southerners who retained their loyalty to the Union – rallied. The president of the League was Thomas J. Earhart who told the crowd, “Hereafter man is man be the shade of his skin White, green or Black.”
On that night, torches, banners, and American flags waved in the breeze as, according to the League’s minutes, “White men and women, Black men and women, shouting aloud in concert” gave three cheers for Abraham Lincoln.
Then, a Black man named Rev. James Keelan stepped to the lectern:
“Fellow citizens, this is the first time for eighty-seven years that the son of Africa is permitted to join in a public celebration of the Fourth of July. We have passed through trials and persecutions – we have been chained and handcuffed for two hundred and fifty years. Tonight the son of Africa holds his head up to the public. Our country has given us our rights – we have now but to defend them…
“Let us go,” he concluded, “We have raised your children, cleaned up your grounds, and enriched you. Now let us go!”
Freedom in Treme – 1864
In June 14, 1864, New Orleans Black community freely gathered in Congo Square to cheer the Louisiana Constitutional Convention’s official adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation.
With American flags waving, 100-gun salutes, and the city’s church bells ringing, the 4th Colored U. S. Cavalry and Black veterans of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans led an array of social aid societies, political clubs, dignitaries, teachers, students, and marching bands through the city streets.
“Is not Emancipation a fixed fact?” asked The Era newspaper in an article that provided a vivid description.
“In the Square a large platform, rising in the form of an amphitheater, had been erected with a stand for the speakers.
…About 12:00, Captain Pearson’s battery fired a salute of one hundred guns, and one hundred taps were struck by the Alarm Telegraph on the city bells…The procession began to file out of the square onto Rampart Street…
First came the military—three regiments of colored soldiers-looking extremely well…Then came the different societies, each with its appropriate banner; then the pupils of the public schools; then the veterans of 1814 and 1815; City and State authorities, and Free State Committee. Then the different clubs – Republican, Radical, Economy Association, Arts and Metiers, United Brothers, Congregation and other societies. Then came carriages with Capt. Cailliou’s family, ex-officers and privates of the First, Second, Sixth, and Seventh Regiments, Louisiana Native Guard, Societies – Artisans, Amis, Francais Amis, Mechanics in wagons…
The procession arrived at Canal Street, and moved up Canal to Carondolet, to Triton Walk, up Triton Walk to St. Charles, up St. Charles to Fourth, and at the corner of Prytania and Fourth, in front of General Bank’s residence.”
After the Civil War, freedmen in Louisiana applied themselves to political participation, family construction, and education of their children. By 1880, Black males were heads of household in 80 percent of Black homes in New Orleans and represented approximately 50 percent of Louisiana voters. Many Black families sacrificed considerably to provide their children access to education that was had been forcibly and legally denied to so many generations. A United Presbyterian minister Rev. Thomas Calahan documented this phenomenon as he toured Louisiana after the Civil War:
“Go out in any direction And you meet Negroes on horses, Negroes with oxen, Negroes on foot, men, women, and children, Negroes in uniform, Negroes in rags; all hopeful, everyone pleading to be taught, willing to do anything for learning. They are never out of our rooms, and their cry is for ‘Books! Books! And ‘when will school begin?”
White Supremacy Prevails - 1898
“Doesn’t it let the White man vote, and doesn’t it stop the Negro from voting, and isn’t that what we came here for?” (Applause)
—E.B. Kruttschnitt – President, 1898 Louisiana Constitutional Convention
“The White supremacy for which we have so long struggled…is now crystallized into the constitution.”
—Governor Murphy Foster
Despite the gains since slavery, in the 1890s White supremacists seized state government in the wake of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Instead of abiding by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the segregationists mocked and undercut them by passing laws that forced African Americans into second class citizenship. Democracy died in Louisiana between the years 1896 and 1900. Between 1897 and 1900, Black voter registration in Louisiana fell from 44 percent to 4 percent of the electorate. The Orleans Parish School Board limited Black education in public schools to only five grades, ensuring that Black public school students would never have an opportunity for any education that prepared them beyond menial labor.
Remembering our Past – Emancipation at 50 in 1913
In 1913 on the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, organizers paraded from the Pythian Temple to the fairgrounds. Rev. Alfred Lawless was the orator of this Emancipation remembrance:
“The past half century has been one of substantial growth and most remarkable development, and on the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation proclamation, we submit our record to the judgment of all impartial critics. In the church buildings we have erected, in the schools we have established, in the banks we have operated, in the homes we have built, in the farms we have acquired, in our military record, and in our efficiency in the trades and professions, we have demonstrated a capacity which is a prophecy of a larger and better life.”
Emancipation at 75 in 1938
The 1938 remembrance included five days of activities involving thousands of people. There was an Emancipation Ball with local orchestras competing to be the “king of Swing”. There were Youth Sunrise Services. Fannie C. Williams, who was the principal at Valena C. Jones School, presided over a women’s hour. The wife of Gov. Huey P. Long was the guest speaker. Friday night was dedicated to laboring men and women and presided over by Rev. W. T. Handy, pastor of Mt. Zion M.E. Church. Dr. Joseph S. Clark directed Saturday’s Education Day which featured a school choir with 1,000 children.
The March on Washington in 1963
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
Where we are Today
In the years to follow, there was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights act of 1965 and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Since Dr. King’s message rang forth in 1963, people of color have found previously unthinkable opportunities in America. There is an African American president. Martin Luther King’s monument is a permanent part of American history.
Yet, after 150 years away from slavery, laws are still being passed and policies created to manipulate the spirit of democracy in our land. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted by the Supreme Court. And similar to the 1800s, it seems constitutional rights can be subjected to the whims of prejudice. Still, progress is not to be denied. To quote Rev. James Keelan in 1863 in New Orleans, “Our country has given us our rights – we have now but to defend them.”