President Obama: “Our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others”

From the White House:

On Wednesday, the President travelled to the U.S. Capitol to deliver remarks at an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. The President was be joined by Members of both the House and Senate, including Congressional leadership and the Congressional Black Caucus, in marking this historic event.

(President Obama delivers remarks at the U.S. Capitol to commemorate the abolition of slavery in 1865.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

We gather here to commemorate a century and a half of freedom — not simply for former slaves, but for all of us.

Today, the issue of chattel slavery seems so simple, so obvious — it is wrong in every sense. Stealing men, women, and children from their homelands. Tearing husband from wife, parent from child; stripped and sold to the highest bidder; shackled in chains and bloodied with the whip. It’s antithetical not only to our conception of human rights and dignity, but to our conception of ourselves — a people founded on the premise that all are created equal. […]

… for decades, America wrestled with the issue of slavery in a way that we have with no other, before or since …

At its heart, the question of slavery was never simply about civil rights. It was about the meaning of America, the kind of country we wanted to be –- whether this nation might fulfill the call of its birth: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” that among those are life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The president described the long struggle to move from freedom to full citizenship, paying homage to the civil rights leaders, and ordinary men and women who pursued justice for people of color. He cited the uneven progress, the ugliness that still “bubbles up” and concluded:

our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others -– regardless of what they look like or where they come from or what their last name is or what faith they practice. (Applause.) To be honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. To nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth. To nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth. That is our choice. Today, we affirm hope.

Transcript: Remarks by the President at Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the 13th Amendment

U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., 12:02 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.” That’s what President Lincoln once wrote. “Honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

Mr. Speaker, leaders and members of both parties, distinguished guests: We gather here to commemorate a century and a half of freedom — not simply for former slaves, but for all of us.

Today, the issue of chattel slavery seems so simple, so obvious — it is wrong in every sense. Stealing men, women, and children from their homelands. Tearing husband from wife, parent from child; stripped and sold to the highest bidder; shackled in chains and bloodied with the whip. It’s antithetical not only to our conception of human rights and dignity, but to our conception of ourselves — a people founded on the premise that all are created equal.

And, to many at the time, that judgment was clear as well. Preachers, black and white, railed against this moral outrage from the pulpit. Former slaves rattled the conscience of Americans in books, in pamphlets, and speeches. Men and women organized anti-slavery conventions and fundraising drives. Farmers and shopkeepers opened their barns, their homes, their cellars as waystations on an Underground Railroad, where African Americans often risked their own freedom to ensure the freedom of others. And enslaved Americans, with no rights of their own, they ran north and kept the flame of freedom burning, passing it from one generation to the next, with their faith, and their dignity, and their song.

The reformers’ passion only drove the protectors of the status quo to dig in harder. And for decades, America wrestled with the issue of slavery in a way that we have with no other, before or since. It shaped our politics, and it nearly tore us asunder. Tensions ran so high, so personal, that at one point, a lawmaker was beaten unconscious on the Senate floor. Eventually, war broke out –- brother against brother, North against South.

At its heart, the question of slavery was never simply about civil rights. It was about the meaning of America, the kind of country we wanted to be –- whether this nation might fulfill the call of its birth: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” that among those are life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

President Lincoln understood that if we were ever to fully realize that founding promise, it meant not just signing an Emancipation Proclamation, not just winning a war. It meant making the most powerful collective statement we can in our democracy: etching our values into our Constitution. He called it “a King’s cure for all the evils.”

A hundred and fifty years proved the cure to be necessary but not sufficient. Progress proved halting, too often deferred. Newly freed slaves may have been liberated by the letter of the law, but their daily lives told another tale. They couldn’t vote. They couldn’t fill most occupations. They couldn’t protect themselves or their families from indignity or from violence. And so abolitionists and freedmen and women and radical Republicans kept cajoling and kept rabble-rousing, and within a few years of the war’s end at Appomattox, we passed two more amendments guaranteeing voting rights, birthright citizenship, equal protection under the law.

And still, it wasn’t enough. For another century, we saw segregation and Jim Crow make a mockery of these amendments. And we saw justice turn a blind eye to mobs with nooses slung over trees. We saw bullets and bombs terrorize generations.

And yet, through all this, the call to freedom survived. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” And eventually, a new generation rose up to march and organize, and to stand up and to sit in with the moral force of nonviolence and the sweet sound of those same freedom songs that slaves had sung so long ago -– crying out not for special treatment, but for equal rights. Calling out for basic justice promised to them almost a century before.

Like their abolitionist predecessors, they were plain, humble, ordinary people, armed with little but faith: Faith in the Almighty. Faith in each other. And faith in America. Hope in the face so often of all evidence to the contrary, that something better lay around the bend.

Because of them — maids and porters and students and farmers and priests and housewives — because of them, a Civil Rights law was passed, and the Voting Rights law was signed. And doors of opportunity swung open, not just for the black porter, but also for the white chambermaid, and the immigrant dishwasher, so that their daughters and their sons might finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Freedom for you and for me. Freedom for all of us.

And that’s what we celebrate today. The long arc of progress. Progress that is never assured, never guaranteed, but always possible, always there to be earned -– no matter how stuck we might seem sometimes. No matter how divided or despairing we may appear. No matter what ugliness may bubble up. Progress, so long as we’re willing to push for it; so long as we’re willing to reach for each other.

We would do a disservice to those warriors of justice — Tubman, and Douglass, and Lincoln, and King — were we to deny that the scars of our nation’s original sin are still with us today. (Applause.) We condemn ourselves to shackles once more if we fail to answer those who wonder if they’re truly equals in their communities, or in their justice systems, or in a job interview. We betray the efforts of the past if we fail to push back against bigotry in all its forms. (Applause.)

But we betray our most noble past as well if we were to deny the possibility of movement, the possibility of progress; if we were to let cynicism consume us and fear overwhelm us. If we lost hope. For however slow, however incomplete, however harshly, loudly, rudely challenged at each point along our journey, in America, we can create the change that we seek. (Applause.) All it requires is that our generation be willing to do what those who came before us have done: To rise above the cynicism and rise above the fear, to hold fast to our values, to see ourselves in each other, to cherish dignity and opportunity not just for our own children but for somebody else’s child. (Applause.) To remember that our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others -– regardless of what they look like or where they come from or what their last name is or what faith they practice. (Applause.) To be honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. To nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth. To nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth. That is our choice. Today, we affirm hope.

Thank you. God bless you. May God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)

END
12:16 P.M. EST

Bolding added.

The 13th Amendment, signed by Abraham Lincoln

The 13th Amendment, signed by Abraham Lincoln

The National Archives: 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery

Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”.

From OurDocuments.gov:

13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865)

The 13th amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States, passed the Senate on April 8, 1864, and the House on January 31, 1865. On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed amendment to the state legislatures. The necessary number of states ratified it by December 6, 1865. The 13th amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

In 1863 President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Nonetheless, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation. Lincoln recognized that the Emancipation Proclamation would have to be followed by a constitutional amendment in order to guarantee the abolishment of slavery.

The 13th amendment was passed at the end of the Civil War before the Southern states had been restored to the Union and should have easily passed the Congress. Although the Senate passed it in April 1864, the House did not. At that point, Lincoln took an active role to ensure passage through congress. He insisted that passage of the 13th amendment be added to the Republican Party platform for the upcoming Presidential elections. His efforts met with success when the House passed the bill in January 1865 with a vote of 119–56.

With the adoption of the 13th amendment, the United States found a final constitutional solution to the issue of slavery. The 13th amendment, along with the 14th and 15th, is one of the trio of Civil War amendments that greatly expanded the civil rights of Americans.

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  4 comments for “President Obama: “Our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others”

  1. JanF
    December 10, 2015 at 5:09 am

    President Obama:

    And that’s what we celebrate today. The long arc of progress. Progress that is never assured, never guaranteed, but always possible, always there to be earned -– no matter how stuck we might seem sometimes. No matter how divided or despairing we may appear. No matter what ugliness may bubble up. Progress, so long as we’re willing to push for it; so long as we’re willing to reach for each other.

    We would do a disservice to those warriors of justice — Tubman, and Douglass, and Lincoln, and King — were we to deny that the scars of our nation’s original sin are still with us today. We condemn ourselves to shackles once more if we fail to answer those who wonder if they’re truly equals in their communities, or in their justice systems, or in a job interview. We betray the efforts of the past if we fail to push back against bigotry in all its forms.

    But we betray our most noble past as well if we were to deny the possibility of movement, the possibility of progress; if we were to let cynicism consume us and fear overwhelm us. If we lost hope. For however slow, however incomplete, however harshly, loudly, rudely challenged at each point along our journey, in America, we can create the change that we seek.

    “No matter what ugliness bubbles up.” Ugliness in America is NOT new and we need to continue the tradition of pushing back against bigotry in all its forms no matter how “harshly, loudly, and rudely challenged” we are.

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  2. December 10, 2015 at 7:44 am

    And it’s odd how conveniently the white people’s God justifies whatever they do—whether it’s condoning the enslavement and exploitation of others or denying that burning fossil fuels creates climate change that endangers the world, their God approves.

    It seems to me that patriarchal religion is complicit in inflicting misery on the human race.

    That is a wonderful speech by our president, Jan, thanks for reproducing it here.

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    • JanF
      December 10, 2015 at 9:01 am

      The president looked weary in this video. I read the speech before I listened to it and he sounded worn out by having to tell people over and over and over again what it means to be an American and to have a Constitution and a process that protects all citizens.

      What a thankless job! I am glad he perseveres because those of us who are trying to find some hope as we see the political discourse degraded as it has been since, first Reagan then the teaparty, rebranded The Party of Lincoln into The Party of Trump, the most meanspirited, ugly, UNAMERICAN manifestation of no-nothingism in decades.

      We want to believe this …

      … we betray our most noble past as well if we were to deny the possibility of movement, the possibility of progress; if we were to let cynicism consume us and fear overwhelm us. If we lost hope.

      And that there is hope and that we can live up the promise of the noble words of our president and men and women of good will who preceded him.

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      • December 10, 2015 at 10:33 am

        Well said, Jan! Honestly, do these people who want to subvert American values ever have civics in school? Or has that gone by the wayside along with penmanship?

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