At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington DC

Last years movie Lincoln was pushed through right in time of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 2013.  A hundred years after that Proclamation on August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of Americans marched to the memorial of Abraham Lincoln, where they listened to one of the most famous speeches in world history, orated by Martin Luther King, Jr.- “I Have a Dream” speech.

On January 1, 1863, the President Lincoln issued the wartime measure known as the Emancipation Proclamation which freed relatively few slaves, but it fueled the fire of the enslaved to strike for their freedom.   Similarly, Reverend King Jr. issued a challenge to the United States in order to move the Federal government to take drastic steps to end segregation between Blacks and Whites across the nation.

Personally I found that a good way to share and reflect on our Civil Rights history was an event I learned more about through the lens of the John F. Kennedy campaign for the 1960 Presidential election.   Going into October a group of Black civil rights activists sat at the counter for food service at the Magnolia Room in Rich’s, an Atlanta department store.  Chris Matthew’s book John F. Kennedy: An Elusive Hero presents what led up to what was called the Democratic Blue Bomb prior to the November election:

The lunch counters at drugstores and other downtown businesses were strictly whites-only.  Corretta King described how it was int hose days: “There was hardly a place outside our own neighborhoods where a Negro could even get a soda except by going to the side door and having it handed it out.”  Among those arrested and charged with trespassing at Rich’s that great day was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. While the other sit-in demonstrators soon were released, a judge denied King bail, sentencing the civili rights leader to six months at hard labor in Reidsville State Prison.  The defendant, he said, had violated probation on an earlier charge of driving in Georgia with an Alabama license. (Can you imagine being charged with a felony for this?  Wonder if it only applied to Blacks.)

Coretta, pregnant at the time, was naturally horrified- and very frightened- when she learned her husband had been roughly awakened at night, placed in handcuffs and leg chains, hurried into a car, and driven two hundred miles into rural Georgia.

Through a mutual friend of Corretta’s, a campaign aide encouraged then Democratic Presidential nominee Kennedy to call Corretta:

“Why don’t you telephone Mrs. King and give her your sympathy,” Shriver suggested to Jack.  “Negroes don’t expect everything will change tomorrow no matter who’s elected, but they do want to know whether you care.  If you telephone Mrs. King, they’ll know that you understand and will help.  You will reach their hearts and give support to a pregnant woman who is afraid her husband will be killed.”

“Thats a good idea,” Kennedy said.  “Why not? Do you have her number?  Get her on the phone.”  Mrs. King would later recount to Wofford what Jack had said.  “I want to express my concer about your husband.  I know this must be very hard on you.  I understand you are expecting a baby, and I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King.  If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call me.”

In what was described as being an off the record conversation, the media would soon pick up on the conversation from Mrs. King who said “It certainly made me feel god that he called me personally and let me know how he felt.  I had the feeling that if he was that much concerned, he would do what he could so that Dr. King was let out of jail.  I have heard nothing from the vice president or anyone on his staff.  Mr. Nixon has been very quiet.”  But this would forever switch the Blacks from the Republican party of President Abraham Lincoln (Emancipation Proclamation) to the party of President John F. Kennedy, read the following excerpt from Matthews on how this happened:

Up at Kennedy headquarters in Washington, Wofford and Louis Martin were about to make history.  Collecting all the appreciateive and admiring comments pouring in from black leaders and others praising the Kennedy’s’ efforts on behalf of the Kings, they found a pari of Philadelphia ministers willing to sponsor a publication of a pamphlet, “The Case of Martin Luther King,” which laid out the story of the Kennedy-King episode in bold language.

“No-Comment Nixon versus a Candidate with a Heart: Senator Kennedy,” one caption read.  “I earnestly and sincerely feel taht it is time for all of us to take off our Nixon buttons,” the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a King ally, was quoted in the document.  “Since Mr. Nixon has been silent through all this, I am going to return his silence when I go into the voting booth.”

The pamphlet, two million copies of which were printed on light blue paper and delivered to black churches the Sunday before the election, would be dubbed “the blue bomb.”  Though it never stirred even the mildest alarm among conservative white voters, who’d remain loyal to the national Democratic ticket, it moved black America overnight to the Democratic side of the ballot, from the party of Lincoln to that of the Kennedys.   Martin Luther King, Jr., summing up the episodes meaning, was eloquent: “There are moments when the politically expedient can be morally wise.”

Here we are with the 2012 election and the Black community voting something like 93% for the Democratic ticket.  Insane.  The consequence that keeps repeating itself is that the Republican party just plays for the short term thereby continuously closing itself off to new potential voters in every generation.  Back in the late 1950’s it was the Blacks who had up until then blindly supported the Republican party due to its association with President Abraham Lincoln, and presently Female and Latino voters.

American Muslims have a lot to cherish in this legacy.  Especially as we share a part of our history with the Black struggle and victory, we also share our history with recent immigrants and the growing Latino community.  More and more Latino’s are converting to Islam and bringing with them their stories and history, enriching the American Muslim diversity, as well as expanding the experience and idea of Islam in America.

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