It was 1865. Word spread, perhaps in whispers carried across the Confederate South: Freedom. The Civil War had ended and those who had not yet deserted the fields or not yet been touched by the Emancipation Proclamation walked free. This month of June commemorates the end of slavery with Juneteenth celebrations and serves as a time to look at the example of a President who rewove a divided nation, one who our current President has described as an inspiration.
[President Obama] still holds the power to usher the way forward by an unequivocal recognition of people’s humanity and clearing the blockade. And in doing so, his action will call us all to do the same, with renewed possibility, and a legacy worthy of commemoration.
Following the example of Lincoln, Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, IL. He advocated for finding a middle road between “red states and blue states,” and invoked his words in his acceptance speech; “As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘we are not enemies but friends...Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Both men sought action through dialogue and negotiation. Both faced harsh realities once in office.
Today the Proclamation stands as one of Lincoln’s greatest achievements. In 1863, it was by no means a political decision without great risk to a President whose closest advisors counseled against it and whose opposition did not only obstruct the working of Congress but had seceded. His actions were labeled as unconstitutional, dangerous and ill timed,
Now firmly in his second term, President Obama is responding to a House of Representatives divided with the pledge of a “year of action.” He has faced similar accusations. His opponents have held as tightly to their ideologies as they have to their strategy to stall the democratic process. In his 2014 State of the Union, Obama signaled that the time for bipartisan action was waning as a result of the intransigence. But how his administration planned to address the 11 million undocumented people in this country was left off the executive to-do list.
To date, the Administration’s response has been to deflect to Congress, deflate growing pressure by making small concessions and to distance from the rhetoric of self-deportation evangelists like Kris Kobach and Sheriff Joe Arpaio while implementing much of the policies they advocate. This middle road response has fallen short, evidenced by the fact that instead of being called a champion, he is now called the Deporter-in-Chief. With time still to determine his legacy, a look in the Lincoln playbook offers a way forward. The President has the authority to intervene by providing relief from the threat of deportation and rolling back a deportation machine that is diminishing rather than expanding public safety.
In the face of high stakes, Lincoln made a decision. He did not split the issue and appeal to both sides but decided the difference was irreconcilable. He declared slavery a cause at the core of the war that had often been understood as states rights versus federal authority. In doing so, he cleared the path for African-Americans who had already been fighting and tipped the scales of the Civil War, posing a dilemma and opportunity to all. Through his unilateral action, Lincoln moved what had been stalled or compromised in other branches and instead laid the groundwork for Congress to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution two years later; not only were slaves now emancipated, the institution of slavery was abolished. Like Lincoln, our current President must break the impasse. As the human cost of inaction becomes ever more clear, and as the reality sets in that there is little chance for federal legislation, a political eclipse emerges: what is morally right is politically strategic.
Juneteenth celebrates the taste of triumph, if only for a moment, ending a period of despair for an entire people, closing a terrible chapter in the history of this country. Those who had built an abolitionist movement were vindicated by a President who found his own place in the history they were writing, transforming it at a far greater scale.
Today, despite the barriers and the risk, many of those who are structurally unequal are pushing for change. The histories are distinct but connected. They both demonstrate the potential people hold when a path is cleared to eradicate their dehumanization and the painful cost of a path that is blocked. This very human experience, most eloquently described by the poet Langston Hughes when he pondered: What happens to a dream deferred?
Once this President decides to lift the threat of deportation, and the possibility to obtain a dignified livelihood exists, the true impact of Obama’s action will be seen in plain view, marking a shift in immigration policy away from intolerance and toward inclusion. His arrival in the White House held the promise of a change of politics. He still holds the power to usher the way forward by an unequivocal recognition of people’s humanity and clearing the blockade. And in doing so, his action will call us all to do the same, with renewed possibility, and a legacy worthy of commemoration.