Although President Abraham Lincoln declared on January 1, 1863, that all enslaved persons residing in Confederate states that had rebelled against the Union in the Civil War “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” his Emancipation Proclamation did not make freedom for all slaves a de facto reality for the slaves themselves.

Because there was no mass media that could disseminate the news throughout the nation at once, and due to the recalcitrance of many Southern states to officially accept their battlefield defeat and also to ignore Lincoln’s decree demanding slaves’ universal liberation, it was not until 30 months later, June 19, 1865, when Union troops marched into Galveston Bay, Texas, that the remaining 250,000 enslaved Africans were freed, moving us one step closer toward an actual blessed event which we will call The Overcome.

Despite these two occasions marking historic chapters in the long journey of African Americans’ struggle for a freedom comparable to that of their white oppressors, it is debatable whether newly freed Black people fully seized upon these groundbreaking episodes to internalize their new legal status as “free” Americans, as slaves who had overcome 250 years of brutal bondage.

A full century later, on August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of offspring of the African slaves who were emancipated by Lincoln four generations earlier gathered at the Reflecting Pool on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. to petition the United States government for redress of post-slavery racial discrimination made legal through Jim Crow and to bestow them the freedom that President Lincoln had conferred upon their ancestors in 1863. 

The Overcome, a liturgy by Dr. Peter W.D. Bramble
Courtesy: Peter Bramble

The theme that day for what was officially billed as the March on Washington was a 1901 gospel hymn by African Methodist Episcopal minister, Charles Albert Tindley, originally entitled, “I’ll Overcome Someday,” now “We Shall Overcome,” sung by Mexican American folk singer, Joan Baez. 

But wait a minute, hadn’t we already “overcome” at the end of the Civil War, which is why we’ve celebrated Juneteenth for a century and a half before it was signed into law on June 17, 2021, as a national holiday by President Joe Biden? 

Have we or have we not overcome as Black people in America is at least a 160-year-old paradox. What appears to be the crux of whether or not Americans of African ancestry have or will overcome is ultimately determined by what constitutes “overcoming.”  If we continue to lament that we will overcome, are we suggesting that hasn’t happened or won’t happen until it is conferred upon us? 

If so, didn’t Abraham Lincoln already do that? Isn’t it true that Black people will finally “overcome” when we embrace that ideal as a truism; as something we confer upon ourselves and internalize with absolute conviction? When we declare ourselves liberated, spiritually, intellectually, politically, socially, and economically and then diligently pursue our full enfranchisement as Americans collectively, without permission.  

This point is at the core of a seminal treatise authored by Yale-educated theological philosopher, Dr. Peter W.D. Bramble, in his recently rereleased book, The Overcome, originally published in 1989. While Dr. Bramble takes a deep scholarly dive into the history, theology, and politics describing missed opportunities associated with Americans of African ancestry “overcoming” our circumstances since slavery, he makes intricately well-documented arguments that no matter how heinous or ungodly our American odyssey has been, it is only and entirely within our purview as a people to triumph, to overcome.

Dr. Bramble’s outlook is not a naïve suggestion that “overcoming” would be achieved by simply ignoring the pain and suffering of our slave legacy by making a declaration that would fulfill itself.  Nor, according to Bramble, is liberation attainable by proclamation alone, regardless of the authority or how well-intentioned.  

In essence, Peter Bramble’s message could not be more honest and pragmatic. Regardless of how horrific, demeaning, or long-suffering one’s personal or historic experience may have been, if the trauma and inhumanity are ever to be triumphed over, it will require a total catharsis, a degree of mental and spiritual fortitude that propels an individual or a people from despair to a trajectory of success and accomplishment; The Overcome.

Only then can the ancestors of former slaves fulfill the blessed event, the promise of Juneteenth, as President Lincoln said, to be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” It is certainly not that easy, but it really is that simple, according to Peter Bramble. Stay tuned for a thorough review and analysis of Dr. Bramble’s book coming soon. Happy Juneteenth!

Author Peter W.D. Bramble, Ph.D., is the husband of Baltimore Times’ publisher, Joy Bramble

Regi Taylor
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