by Reverend Dr. Gwendolyn D. Magby….
Since 1976 the United States has recognized February as Black History Month. Since 1948 February 1st has been recognized as “Freedom Day” because it was on February 1st that President Lincoln signed the joint congressional resolution that authorized the 13th Amendment which ultimately prohibited slavery in the United States, obviously one of the most significant dates in black history in America. (February is also the birthday month of Abraham Lincoln and his friend, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass.) This past February 1st was particularly significant because it was the 150th anniversary of that important event.
Although Black History Month ended Saturday, last Wednesday, March 4th was the 150th anniversary of a very significant event, not only for African Americans, but for all citizens. It was the anniversary of President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Most will remember the closing words from that speech:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive onto finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds;to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow,and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
In the 701 word speech Lincoln mentioned God fourteen times, quoted Scripture four times, and invoked prayer four times. Surprisingly, in all previous inaugural addresses God had been mentioned only once.
It took Lincoln less than ten minutes to read the speech to the crowd of approximately 40,000 citizens who had gathered to hear his remarks. Among those in the crowd were his friend, the ex-slave, Frederick Douglass, and several of the conspirators who assisted in his murder less than forty five days later.
Most see his speech as a call for unity between both sides in the war that had cost so many lives. Lincoln mentioned that both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. But Lincoln considered slavery an offense of Biblical proportions and indicated that the blood shed by both sides might be in expatiation for the evils of slavery. In another oft-quoted passage he said:
“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ “
In researching Freedom Day for our anti-slavery rally on February 1st we discovered another, little known, Lincoln speech he made on the Monday before his death. This speech is not well known but perhaps we suggest is as important as his Second Inaugural.
Speaking from a White House balcony on Monday, April 4, Lincoln suggested that literate blacks and black veterans be given the right to vote. When his statements were reported to John Wilkes Booth, Booth exclaimed to a friend: “He wants to make niggers citizens! By God, that is the last speech he will ever make.”
One historian has called that speech proposing black suffrage the event that sealed his fate. Lincoln was a martyr for his role in ending slavery. The Second Inaugural Address is important because it shows what might have happened in this country had Lincoln been able to serve out his second term. He wanted reconciliation with former enemies and civil rights for the freed slaves. It took more blood, shed by many 100 years later, to accomplish Lincoln’s dream.
This Sunday is the 50th anniversary of what has become known as Bloody Sunday. Those who saw the film “Selma” know what Bloody Sunday is about. But for those not familiar with it, the story is worth telling.
It is interesting that it occurred just one hundred years and three days after Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. The Student National Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been staging protests in the small town of Selma, Alabama because of that town’s resistance to registering blacks to vote. On February 17th an Alabama State Trooper shot and killed one of the protestors. In response to this murder (what else can it be called?) a protest march was planned for Sunday, March 7th.
Approximately 500 predominantly back protestors showed up for the march, which was led by twenty-five year old John Lewis (now a United States Congressman who has spoken at the Little White House). The marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge but they were stopped by local police and Alabama state troopers. When the marchers refused the demand that they turn back, the police charged the marchers and used their billy clubs to beat the protestors bloody.
On that Monday the New York Times described what happened:
“When they stood in place, the troopers charged at them. The first 10 or 20 Negroes were swept to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying and packs and bags went skittering across the grassy divider strip and on to the pavement on both sides. Those still on their feet retreated. The troopers continued pushing, using both the force of their bodies and the prodding of their nightsticks.”
Over fifty marchers were beaten so badly they had to be hospitalized and one of the persons beaten the most fiercely was John Lewis. The police actions were televised throughout the world and shocked the nation, indeed the world.
Ultimately a second march was organized and started on March 21st and under federal protection. It took four days to complete the forty-five mile journey from Selma to Birmingham. The dramatic story is retold in “Selma” and I would urge all readers to see the movie if they have not already.
The actions of the courageous marchers and the blood they shed ultimately paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was enacted on August 6, 1965. Thus it took over 100 years for this country to achieve what Lincoln proposed on April 4, 1865. How different our history might have been but for the assassination of President Lincoln, an event that occurred 150 years ago next month.
It could be said that most African Americans did not truly become full citizens until their right to vote was secured. It is hard to believe that happened but fifty years ago.
Rev Dr Gwendolyn D Magby
Dr. Gwendolyn Magby pastors Trinity Presbyterian Church on Simonton Street and she chairs Keys Coalition, the Monroe County anti-slavery organization. Next week we will publish her essay on modern day slavery.