Obama marks abolition of slavery with plea to reject of 'bigotry in all forms'

The president reflected on the significance of the 13th Amendment, which effectively abolished slavery, 150 years after its passage, linking the efforts of civil rights leaders of the past to movements to combat discrimination today.

Andrew Harnik/AP
President Obama speaks during a commemoration ceremony for the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which abolished slavery in the United States, Wednesday, in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In a speech commemorating the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery on Wednesday, President Obama urged Americans to "push back against bigotry in all forms."

Describing slavery as the “nation’s original sin,” Mr. Obama said the efforts of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and later Martin Luther King Jr. to fight a legacy of racial discrimination should be an inspiration for Americans today to come together, “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."

Since the passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress on December 6, 1865, he said, bigotry have may taken different, less overt forms than the brutality of slavery, but that has not lessened its impact.

"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,” Obama added.

In tying together the past and the present, Obama’s words also seemed to be an effort to further address complex issues of race – and criticisms that he has not done more for the black community – through two terms as the nation’s first black president.

“Many of Mr. Obama’s admirers and critics have hungered for straight talk on race since his election. But since taking office, the president had been skittish on the subject and had mostly let it lapse into disturbing silence,” the sociologist Michael Eric Dyson wrote in a New York Times opinion in August.

Professor Dyson pointed to a rising tide of outrage about police violence against young black people and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as key milestones in spurring greater action and a slew of efforts to reform the nation’s criminal justice system, late in Obama’s presidency.

Reflecting on a speech Obama made at the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia in July, Dyson wrote, “It was almost as if Michelle Alexander, author of ‘The New Jim Crow,’ and the former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. had hacked his computer and collaborated on his speech.”

Obama’s legacy on race may be defined in part by his actions to curb the harsh mandatory minimum sentences adopted for drug crimes in the 1980s and 90s. In July, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, questioning harsh sentences for nonviolent crimes.

“Even on Capitol Hill, policymakers in both parties have recognized that the billions spent during the decades-long war on drugs have created an unsustainably high prison population – the largest in the world – that is straining budgets,” The Christian Science Monitor reported last month, noting that measures to curb mandatory minimum sentencing has enjoyed bipartisan support.

Some observers say Obama is taking a longer-range view in addressing a legacy of discrimination piece by piece rather than all at once, which seems to jibe with his 2012 comment that “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.”

“Likely cognizant of the climate he confronts, Obama has indeed avoided direct discussions with race,” Jamie Longazel, a sociologist at the University of Dayton, told The Monitor last month.

“Rather than a last-ditch effort to do something to preserve his legacy on racial issues,” Professor Longazel adds, “I see this as emblematic of Obama's broader political strategy: treading lightly and taking a long view to avoid awakening the harsh sentiments that characterize the current moment and are so commonly pointed in his direction.”

Some reflections on Obama’s speech seemed to point to his words as a direct condemnation of the rhetoric of presidential candidates like Donald Trump, who has called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, a charge Obama’s press secretary rejected.

In Congress, which also marked the passage of the 13th Amendment by 27 states, lawmakers pointed to the document’s historic nature. "When we read those 43 short and simple words, we should remember these men and what they did," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin said of the amendment. “We should realize those words, like their acts, were gallant, noble and profound.”

Obama pointed to the amendment as a foundational document repudiating the legacy of slavery.

“We gather here to commemorate a century and a half of freedom, not simply for former slaves, but for all of us," he said “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.”

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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