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After President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, there was inevitable disappointment. Emancipation was not universal. Freedom came only to those in “states of rebellion.” Border-states that had not joined the Confederacy were exempt from the proclamation’s directives. And Lincoln still hoped that even after military victory Negroes would voluntarily immigrate. He was convinced that blacks and whites could not live as equals in the same nation.
As a youth, I remember my own deep disappointment when I learned these details. America’s greatest President seemed unworthy of such equivocations and concessions to bigotry and military necessity. I thought he was not the “Great Emancipator”, that he was just another politician exploiting circumstance. But then I was idealistic, impatient, and naïve. Later I would learn much more about the history of the Emancipation Proclamation, and would come to accept and hopefully understand the ambiguities and paradoxes of human nature and history, and see the significance of that year as a black American, a citizen of the world, and as a Baha’i.
Again, Frederick Douglass was remarkably prescient, addressing the disappointment and criticism just a month later in New York. On February 6, he noted the psychological impact of the proclamation:
“We are all liberated by this proclamation. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated.”
Yes, freedom frees both the enslaved and the enslaver. But Douglass could see far beyond emancipation. He observed,
“There are certain great national acts, which by their relation to universal principles, properly belong to the whole human family, and Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of the 1st of January, 1863 is one of these acts. Henceforth it becomes the date of a new and glorious era in the history of American liberty. Henceforth, it shall stand associated in the minds of men, with all those stately steps of mankind.”
He then unequivocally asserted,
“I believe in the millennium.”
Of course, he could not know that halfway around the world a Persian nobleman called Baha’u’llah would soon announce the arrival of the spiritual millenium on the eve of his exile from Baghdad to Constantinople. Baha’u’llah, like Lincoln, had waited and bided his time to make his “great announcement.” Ten years before, Baha’u’llah became aware of his mission in a deep and foul Tehran prison, unjustly jailed and chained for his teachings. But Baha’u’llah remained silent about it until the time was right, when his followers were ready to receive and accept it, when they needed to hear what he had to tell them.
All great spiritual, social, and political leaders are masters of wisdom and timing who understand the importance of silence and waiting. Those great, patient leaders also engage their followers, answer their questions, seek their advice, address their concerns. Before he left Baghdad forever, Baha’u’llah did exactly that for twelve days — and thus transformed a time of great tribulation for his followers into a season of joy, repeating the invocation, “This is the Day” to announce the advent of a new era, the era of liberation and the unity of all mankind.
Baha’is around the world celebrate those joyous days, called Ridvan (which means “paradise” and is pronounced rez-wan) after the garden where Baha’u’llah made his historic declaration, between April 21st and May 2nd every year.
1863 was a remarkable year, a year worth remembering by all admirers of great leaders, lovers of human freedom, and dreamers everywhere who, looking back, can see humanity’s emergence from the anguish and tribulation of civil war, exile, racism and banishment. Yes, all is not well. Yes, bigotry and prejudice, war and intolerance do still exist. Yes, the black community in America is still plagued by injustice, violence and discrimination. Yes, the Baha’i community is still persecuted in the land of its birth. Yes, the advancement of its principles of unity and peace throughout the world is slow and incremental. At times 1863 can seem as remote as a date in the chronology of the Ming Dynasty or the Kingdoms of the Pharaohs.
And yet I know that so much has happened within those one hundred and fifty years. Within a relatively short expanse of our collective history, the earth has become a new earth, forever different from the world Lincoln and Baha’u’llah inhabited. Their profound, powerful anniversaries remind me that they both created, in their own ways, and in their own unique spheres, a moral and spiritual world that is eternal and forever young, the world of liberty and justice for all.