On January 18, 2010, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, President Barack Obama invited a small group of elderly African-Americans and their grandchildren to the White House for an “an intergenerational reflection on the civil rights movement.” [1] During the visit, he surprised the group with a trip to the Oval Office to view one of the original, Lincoln-signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation that had newly been hung on the office wall above a bust of Dr. King. [2]


President Obama highlights an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation for his White House guests.  [3]

This brief gathering, and in it the linking of a 19th century emancipating document with an iconic 20th century leader of the Civil Rights Movement, during a 21st century peoples’ reflection on the processual journey of civil rights in the United States, is an elucidating representation of the usable nature and lasting symbolic significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In popular memory, Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation have often been valued as an iconic apex of moral achievement, perpetuated in early years in depictions such as in the Freedman’s Emancipation Memorial, and maintained in more recent memory by US Postal Service stamps glorifying the Emancipation Proclamation [4], the perennial, often-used moniker ‘Great Emancipator,’ and the epithet of “Honest Abe” in popular culture.

However, the legacies of both President Lincoln and his proclamation have also been the subjects of much contestation, revision, and counter-interpretations. Modern scholarship has, first, questioned the scope and deserved legacy of the document itself. A proper remembering reveals that the preliminary proclamation issued on September 22, 1862 declared that slaves would be freed in any state still in rebellion on January 1, 1863. This declaration was only a partial counter to an evil institution, and neglected to eradicate slavery in the four border slave states that had remained in the Union, and any states that had seceded but were willing to re-enter the Union. [5]  Further critique has challenged President Lincoln’s own moral compass, and the guiding force behind his emancipatory actions.  A popular emerging memory of the President has incorporated the idea that extenuating factors such as calculated wartime strategy, rather than moral cause, lay behind his decision to proclaim enslaved peoples free.  Further, long veiled in popular memory by the continual characterization of President Lincoln as an unequivocally moral and stoic figure, is the reemergence of a letter he sent to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in August 1862:


President Lincoln’s letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley [6]

In sum, the notion of President Lincoln as the nation’s “Great Emancipator” is a rosy image that has been contested by the more nuanced emerging picture of a leader with varying intentions and incomplete results.  The Proclamation was indeed a transgressive step that inaugurated an ongoing movement for racial equality, but, given the controversy embedded in the long-considered immaculate legacy of President Lincoln and his document, it is particularly interesting to evaluate how Lincoln and the Proclamation have fit into more contemporary struggles for civil rights. Much can be extrapolated from an analysis of the portrayal of the Emancipation Proclamation by leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and, from a critical examination of the presence and positioning of the Lincoln-signed copy within the space of President Obama’s Oval Office.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy [7]

President Obama in the Oval Office, surrounded by the powerful imagery of busts of President Lincoln and Dr. King, and a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. [8]

It takes only several references to the voices of Civil Rights Movement leaders’ to illustrate the era’s emerging memory of the Emancipation Proclamation.  President Kennedy, during the centennial year of Lincoln’s proclamation, issued a Civil Rights Announcement and famously alluded to the Proclamation; “One hundred years have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free.” [9]  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. corroborated this sentiment of the incomplete legacy of the Proclamation in his “I Have a Dream” speech later that same year.  King orated, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation…But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free.” [10]   A further indicator of the Proclamation’s legacy during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement is coded in the fact that Dr. King and President Kennedy together sought to issue a, explicitly named, “second Emancipation Proclamation,” which inherently demonstrates that the outcome of the original 1863 proclamation was perceived insufficient.


Documentation of the collaborative effort between Dr. King and President Kennedy to create a “second Emancipation Proclamation” in 1962.  [11]

Revealed by the aforementioned examples, is that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation has proven in emerging memories to be not an end in itself, but rather the means and platform off which an ongoing movement towards civil rights for black Americans has sprung.  Further revealed, is that the Civil Rights Movement, and with it the accompanying rememory of Lincoln’s legacy, has allowed space for a transferal of agency, and a symbolic replacement of President Lincoln as the champion of black civil rights, with Dr. King.  This reality can be best demonstrated by the material and spatial construction of Dr. King’s deliverance of the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.  The Reverend placed himself firmly in front of Lincoln’s memorial, in the centennial year of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and powerfully proclaimed that the work of the Proclamation was not yet a fight completed.



Dr. King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech directly in front of the Lincoln Memorial. [12]

Nearly forty-seven years after Dr. King’s speech, President Obama brought his White House visitors to the Oval Office to view the signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that hung—evoking similar imagery to the speech—behind a bust of Dr. King.  This gathering, brief yet profound, demonstrated that in spite of emerging counter voices against Lincoln and the Proclamation, and in spite of Dr. King’s assumption of the role of dominant figure of black civil rights, Lincoln’s legacy and impact has by no measure been entirely distanciated from official memory.  President Obama’s pointed inclusion of Lincoln’s Proclamation in his intergenerational discussion on civil rights suggests that the Proclamation’s strength in contemporary memory is, in fact, its very incompleteness and imperfectness.  Emerging memories appreciate the Emancipation Proclamation today not because of the fantasies of transcendence long perpetuated in popular memory, but because its incompleteness leaves room for discussion, for improvement.  His Proclamation, and its remembered legacy, is emblematic of the fact that memory is not finite, but rather processual, and usable. Ultimately, we revere Lincoln today because of the sentiment voiced by Frederick Douglass in 1862 before Lincoln issued the Proclamation; “Lincoln may be slow, but he will take no steps backwards.” [13]  The Emancipation Proclamation can be remembered for just that; even in its imperfections it was a step forward and a platform to propel us into the ongoing process of the fight for civil rights.



 Works Cited

[1]  Stolberg, Sheryl. “Marking King Day, From Oval Office to Soup Kitchen.” New York Times18 Jan. 2010. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/19/us/politics/19obama.html?_r=0>

[2] Compton, Matt. “The Emancipation Proclamation Is 150 Years Old.” The White House. The White House, 21 Sept. 2012. Web. <https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/09/21/emancipation-proclamation-150-years-old>.

[3] Compton, Matt. Image. “The Emancipation Proclamation Is 150 Years Old.” The White House. The White House, 21 Sept. 2012. Web. <https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/09/21/emancipation-proclamation-150-years-old>.

[4] Perry, Brandon A. “EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION.” Recorder: A1. Dec 28 2012. ProQuest. Web. <http://search.proquest.com/docview/1268767007?pq-origsite=summon>

[5] Black, Eric. “Reconsidering the Emancipation Proclamation: What Were Lincoln’s Motives?” MINNPOST 3 Jan. 2013. Web. <https://www.minnpost.com/eric-black-ink/2013/01/reconsidering-emancipation-proclamation-what-were-lincoln-s-motives>.

[6] “Review of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” by David Von Drehle.” Image. 19 Feb. 2013. Web.


[7] The King-Kennedy Connection. Image. <http://www.politico.com/story/2014/01/the-king-kennedy-connection-102361.html>

[8] Souza, Pete. Image. <https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/8341827752>

[9] “Primary Resources: Civil Rights Announcement, 1963.” American Experience – TV’s Most-Watched History Series. PBS. Web. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/jfk-civilrights/>.

[10] “Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream.” American Rhetoric Top 100 Speeches. Web. <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm>.

[11]  Dr. King’s Involvement with the Second Emancipation Proclamation. The King Center. Image. <http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/dr-kings-involvement-second-emancipation-proclamation>

[12] Sport the theatre of Luther King’s dream. Image. <http://www.swide.com/art-culture/history/martin-luther-king-speech-50-years-sport-theatre-i-have-a-dream/2013/08/28>

[13] Jealous, Benjamin. “BENJAMIN JEALOUS: The Emancipation Proclamation and Our Collective History.” The Sacramento Observer 8 Jan. 2013. Web. <http://sacobserver.com/2013/01/benjamin-jealous-the-emancipation-proclamation-and-our-collective-history/>.

Memory Concepts retrieved from:

Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication (1995): 214–239. Print.

Schudson, Michael. “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory,” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past. Eds. Daniel L. Schacter et al. (1995), 346-378

1 thought on “The Legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation in the Continued Fight for Civil Rights

  1. Mark Zhao

    This is a great post connecting Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama. The challenge against Lincoln’s memory, by pointing out society’s rose-colored glasses, is a perspective that has not been fully explored by American culture. Its vernacular memory does not sit well with the official, collective memory. Your argument seems convincing that his actions might not have been fully committed towards emancipation. But given the historical period, extremism might have fragmented the country even further. Addressing the second Emancipation and referencing to MLK, Jr. and President Kennedy, our other assassinated president, strengthens the bonds between these great leaders. I look forward to your finishing this post!

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