WASHINGTON — House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, speaking Thursday at the cottage where Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, celebrated its 150th anniversary but warned that one of the most important products of the slain president’s visionary leadership is under threat at the Supreme Court.
Clyburn, the only African-American to hold a leadership post in Congress, also noted the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered to hundreds of thousands by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial.
The South Carolina Democrat told a racially mixed audience of church ministers, historians and guests from the Washington region that he’d attended Tuesday’s Supreme Court hearing of a case in which the government of Shelby County, Ala., is challenging portions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Clyburn expressed dissatisfaction with Justice Anton Scalia’s challenge of the law’s continuation, during oral arguments, as “a perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
He criticized Scalia’s comment as “an attack on what many people believe is the most effective civil rights law ever enacted.”
“We’re all entitled to the effectiveness of the Constitution of the United States,” Clyburn said to murmurs of encouragement from his listeners. “We all have a perpetual entitlement.”
Asked after the Lincoln Cottage ceremony whether he fears the Supreme Court will overturn the Voting Rights Act, which ended Jim Crow laws that had prevented blacks from casting ballots in the South, Clyburn responded: “I am deeply concerned.”
Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a former civil rights leader from Georgia, earlier called Scalia’s remark “appalling” and “an affront to all of what the civil rights movement stood for.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and black lawmakers held a rally Wednesday to protect the Voting Rights Act on the steps outside the Supreme Court after its hearing.
At what is now called the Lincoln Cottage, three miles north of the White House on Washington’s northern edge, the nation’s 16th president worked on the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 before issuing it Jan. 1, 1863.
While Lincoln used his authority as commander in chief as the proclamation’s legal basis, it freed slaves only in the 10 Confederate states that had seceded. Tens of thousands of freed slaves joined Union troops as they advanced through the South.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution banned slavery with its adoption on Dec. 6, 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination.
Long considered among the greatest American presidents, Lincoln has enjoyed a resurgence of interest since last year’s release of Steven Spielberg’s epic “Lincoln,” in which Daniel Day-Lewis received a Best Actor Oscar on Sunday for his portrayal of the man known in his time as Honest Abe.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who in January became the only black Republican in Congress, said that Lincoln, a founder of the Republican Party, has been a guiding light for him.
“President Lincoln taught us the value of persistence, and his struggles showed that a man who wrestles with himself and asks hard questions will come to better conclusions,” Scott said..
“I had an opportunity to view the (original) Emancipation Proclamation in person last month, and the power of Lincoln’s vision remains as clear today as it did 150 years ago,” Scott said. “Those words, and the action and belief behind them, forever changed our nation, and we are eternally grateful.”
At the ceremony, four people wearing renditions of Lincoln’s trademark black stovepipe hat read the Emancipation Proclamation aloud.
Erin Carlson Mast, director of President Lincoln’s Cottage, which is now a national monument, said when he journeyed to it from the White House, the president “would ride in carriage or on horseback past caravans of wounded soldiers and camps of men, women and children who had fled the fighting” during the Civil War.
Lincoln, who was born in a backwoods Kentucky cabin on Feb. 12, 1809, was largely self-taught because he had to skip school to help support his family. He became a lawyer in Springfield, Ill., before serving in the Illinois House of Representatives and the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected to the presidency on Nov. 6, 1860.
Lincoln was inaugurated March 4, 1861, 39 days before confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, S.C., launching the Civil War.
Lincoln, who made a dozen visits to Union troops on or near front lines, presided over the bloodiest war in U.S. history until Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, after the deaths of 1 million soldiers and other Americans.
John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer, shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater a few blocks from the White House five days after Lee’s surrender, and Lincoln died the next day.