The Emancipation Proclamation and the Politics of Self-Liberation

The 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's document reminds us that freedom is the work of groups, not individuals

On a cold bright New Year's Day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln finally signed the document which underlies his controversial reputation as "the Great Emancipator". Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not, in fact, result in the overnight liberation of millions of enslaved people, it enabled black men to fight on the Union side and has long been seen as a milestone in the unconscionably slow attainment by African-Americans of full citizenship, social equality and meaningful freedom.

On New Year's Eve, many African-American congregations will have commemorated the "Watch Night" services of the last night of 1862 when many gathered in churches to "watch" for the long-awaited issuance of the proclamation - which will also be read out at anniversary ceremonies across the United States today. Long queues of people are waiting to see the original document on rare and brief display at the National Archives in Washington DC.

Given that the proclamation was a largely symbolic gesture based on a canny military calculus that transformed the civil war into a war ostensibly about supporting or abolishing slavery, and that it would be two more years before the 13th Amendment would legally prohibit enslavement, why commemorate it? Does it, moreover, have relevance beyond the borders of the US and for a different global moment a century and a half later? The answer is yes, if the occasion functions as an opportunity to evaluate history more honestly.

It is possible to acknowledge, as one abolitionist did, that the Emancipation Proclamation gave "liberty a moral recognition" if there is also an understanding that no liberation, whether from colonialism or slavery, takes place without the participation of those who are at the receiving end of oppression. The former slave and great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was both critical of and worked alongside Lincoln, famously reminded his fellow blacks that "power concedes nothing without a struggle". Tyranny's limits, he noted, "are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress".

Slaves did not passively endure their lot but despite groundbreaking historical studies in recent decades, which have shown how extensively slaves in the United States and in British colonies resisted their oppression in a variety of ways, the myth of freedom as conferred bloodlessly from on high by white men upon passive black subjects continues to exercise a tenacious hold on the western imagination. It is a notion that has also, of course, underpinned foreign policy misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is time to get past the persistent idolisation of great men - while noting the significant role they might have played - towards a better understanding of how freedom was interpreted and fought for by larger groups of people, including those at the receiving end of exploitation, who often forged radical alliances across boundaries of race and class. Such an attempt is not helped by films like Steven Spielberg's recent biopic Lincoln, which has been justly criticised for reinforcing the historically inaccurate notion that blacks were passive in relation to their own emancipation. In contrast, books such as historian Eric Foner's Forever Free, Robin Blackburn's The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery and the documentary collection Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation show instead how black people variously organised in plantations and towns, rose up in violent rebellion, fought alongside white allies, escaped in droves to safe spaces, wrote letters and editorials, travelled and gave speeches, exhorted their fellow slaves and freedmen and lobbied the powerful. The politics of liberation anywhere in the world unfolds both in presidential mansions and on the street.

This has also been the inescapable insight of our own times. From the Arab uprisings to Palestinian resistance, the growth of Syriza in Greece to massive anti-austerity protests in Spain and the United Kingdom, Occupy Wall Street to student movements in Chile and Quebec and from resurgent feminism in India to the Idle No More movement to assert indigenous land rights in North America, passivity no longer reigns. Whether against explicitly repressive regimes or the many ostensibly democratic ones that shore up the interests of the wealthy and powerful few, the record of our times will honour a long tradition of collective self-emancipation.