Notes on the Program
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he said, "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper." In Boston, Frederick Douglass called the Proclamation a "worthy celebration of the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thraldom of the ages." It was indeed a first step; the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation was more symbolic than practical. The Proclamation only freed the slaves in the 10 Confederate states still in rebellion, where the governors were hardly inclined to comply. Slavery continued in border states, even in a few Northern states that still allowed it. Ever the politician, Lincoln undoubtedly had strategic goals in mind. The Proclamation served as a warning to Southern states to surrender or they would lose slavery as the basis of their economic survival. It also encouraged Union support by Britain and France, where slavery had already been abolished. The Proclamation strengthened Lincoln’s military hand by allowing black men to enlist in the Union Army and Navy. By the end of the Civil War, more than 200,000 did so. As Union forces swept through the Confederacy, officers were sent to slave quarters to announce to the astonished residents that they were now free.
By August 28, 1963, the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was still not fully realized. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “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 still is not free.” The indignity of segregation, the cruelty of lynching and the callousness of deprivation were a painful Reconstruction legacy that only worsened after the Great Depression and World War II. Dr. King knew that civil rights activists felt more rage than hope when nonviolent protests were repeatedly met with police dogs and water cannons, but he channeled that frustration into a positive message. Although he spent weeks consulting advisors on the preparation of his speech for the March on Washington, he departed from the written text when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” The famous refrain of “I have a dream” was an improvisation, spoken from the heart of a Baptist preacher with the skill and the courage to change history.
Music has long played an essential role in the struggles of black Americans, both those born here and those brought here against their will. Spirituals arose as slaves mixed the forbidden music of their African homelands with the Christian hymns they were obliged to learn. Singing became a language that the white masters could not decode, with specific songs used to warn against danger or invite escape on the Underground Railroad. In the 20th century, songs learned in church became vehicles for nonviolent protest, as marchers linked arms and sang to strengthen each other while enduring ridicule and brutality. The Monmouth Civic Chorus honors this music today as the heritage of all Americans who sustain the dream of liberty and justice for all.