Prolific author Dr. Orville Vernon Burton, professor of history and computer science at Clemson University, delivered this year’s Stukes Lecture March 4, entitled “Lincoln: From the Emancipation Proclamation to the March on Washington.” He told his audience, “Lincoln’s flexible mind enabled him to grow,” and cited ways in which his vision expanded over the course of his political career.
Known for signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln at one point gave the Confederates a time limit of three and a half months, Burton said, in which they could come back into the Union with slavery intact. Once that time period had elapsed, slavery was no longer on the table, but would be abolished.
Although Lincoln defined the Civil War in terms of the preservation of the Union rather than seeing the war’s main goal as the abolition of slavery, “For all Lincoln’s moderation, he struck a blow for justice,” Burton said.
Lincoln’s labor for justice continued as he worked for the passage of the 13th amendment, which was needed to ensure that his Emancipation Proclamation was carried out. That amendment, along with the 14th and 15th amendments enshrining equal citizenship and voting rights, helped to redefine the role of government in protecting liberty.
It was not for freeing the slaves that Lincoln was assassinated, Burton said. “Lincoln was killed for advocating black voting.”
Emphasizing the relationship between freedom and education, Burton spoke about the founding of schools by and for freed slaves, including the Penn School, one of the first schools for freed slaves, located on St. Helena in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. A legacy of this activity is the advocacy of education for all children, black and white, he said. “You can’t have democracy without education.”
Burton observed that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the most famous address of his career at the March on Washington—a key event showing the continuing effects of shifts set in motion in 1863—and pointed out that “Martin Luther King called his ‘I have a dream’ speech his ‘Emancipation Proclamation speech.’”
The year 2013 marked the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, but Lincoln’s vision of justice is still being worked out in attempts to address persistent racial inequalities. “The Civil War is with us still,” Burton said.
Recently named Creativity Professor of Humanities at Clemson University, where he serves as professor of history and computer science and director of the Clemson CyberInstitute, Burton is the author of many books and other publications, including The Age of Lincoln (2007), which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Literary Award for Nonfiction, and In My Father’s House are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (1985).
The Joseph T. Stukes Lecture Series brings a distinguished lecturer in history to Erskine each year. The fund was established by students and colleagues of Stukes, who was professor of history (1966-74) and vice president for academic affairs (1966-71) at Erskine College.