July 26, 2020

When The Emancipation Proclamation Expired


On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that changed the very nature of the Civil War by declaring those who were slaves at the time would now be free. What few people realized then or now was that down at the bottom, right below his signature, Lincoln had also stamped “Best if used before January 1st, 2003.”

           That’s right, one hundred and forty years after it went into effect, The Emancipation Proclamation was going to expire, and legal slavery would once again become a cornerstone of the American economy.

           By way of explanation, let me jump ahead from Lincoln to Tony Brown.

           Brown, now in his late eighties, is an African-American journalist, writer, academic and businessman known for his seminars on black entrepreneurship and economic empowerment. He’s also an outspoken ultraconservative Republican Christian who, in 1977, began hosting the long-running PBS show Tony Brown’s Journal. His 1995 book, Black Lies, White Lies: The Truth According to Tony Brown, in which he analyzed strategies for black empowerment from a conservative perspective, sold a reported 100,000 copies.

            Brown is also a conspiracy theorist who, by the time of his 1998 book Empower the People: A 7 Step Guide to Overthrow the Conspiracy That is Stealing Your Money and Freedom, had come to blame most of the problems faced by the black community on the racist machinations of Freemasons and the Illuminati. In the past he had argued (sometimes convincingly) that AIDS had been created as a bioweapon in the labs of the Rockefeller Institute before being deliberately introduced into the black community, that Brown and Williamson had consciously packed the filters of Kool cigarettes with asbestos to greatly increase the chances of lung cancer among black smokers, and that Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination had been orchestrated by a cabal of mobsters and high-ranking government officials.

            Then in December of 1999, Brown told listeners to his New York-based radio call-in show that on January first, 2003, Lincoln’s executive order would expire, making slavery once again legal in the United States. If we the people didn’t band together to demand an extension of the Emancipation Proclamation, a minute after midnight plantation owners and corporate CEOs would flood into the nation’s low-income housing complexes to begin rounding up the able-bodied to work the fields and estates and warehouses.

            In the months prior to this, Brown had used his radio show as a platform to warn listeners, often in very shrill terms, about the dire threat posed by the Y2K computer bug. If you think back to that particular moment in our history, paranoia and general anxiety were both running deep in the red zone, with so many people preoccupied with not only Y2K, but all the threatened attacks on Times Square at the stroke of midnight, the imminent return of Jesus Christ, and other assorted colorful apocalyptic scenarios set to accompany the arrival of the year 2000. It would seem warning people about something three years down the line would be a bit premature. But perhaps understanding how slowly the wheels of government grind, Brown wanted to start getting the word out as soon as possible.

            Now, there are a few clear problems with Brown’s theory.

            As honorable a symbolic gesture as it was, The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free a single slave. As written, it applied only to secessionist states—exempting border states and those which the Union already controlled. What’s more, the freedom Lincoln was declaring was wholly dependent upon a Union victory. Beyond being a nice gesture on Lincoln’s part. The Emancipation Proclamation accomplished nothing, so repealing it, burning it, claiming it never existed would have no effect whatsoever, except in symbolic terms. Despite what most of us were taught in eighth-grade civics classes about that little executive decree, slavery wasn't actually abolished in the United States until two years later, at the end of the war, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Now, when people start talking about repealing the Thirteenth Amendment, that’s when it’s time to start worrying.

            Even if The Emancipation Proclamation had freed the slaves, Brown’s claim was on shaky ground. If you go back and read the text of the original document, you'll see that Lincoln states quite clearly, “  . . . I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free.” There's no question, no room for interpretation, no expiration date.

            That didn’t matter. Certainly not to Brown, who should have known better, and likely did. In his books and on his shows, Brown had long promoted the idea that white America had undertaken a genocidal program against the nation’s black population. While the idea of rescinding The Emancipation Proclamation certainly fits into such a large-scale conspiracy, you’d think he would avoid tossing out supposed evidence that was not only patently untrue, but so easily checked out.

            Silly as it all was, here’s where things take that inevitable ironic twist.

            I first heard about the conspiracy through HOT 97’s Lisa Evers a few weeks after Brown made the shocking announcement. At the time Evers was the host of “Street Soldiers,” a New York-based call-in show focused on issues facing the local black community. In the middle of a show about the kind of widespread discrimination black New Yorkers faced when trying to hail a taxi, one caller mentioned that The Emancipation Proclamation was going to expire in just a couple of years. Evers commented that she had heard that, too, and was considering devoting an entire show to the issue in the near future.

            At the time I was a journalist working at the alternative weekly New York Press. Curious about this seemingly outlandish claim, I started doing a little research. The mainstream media seemed to have completely missed the story, understandably consumed with everything else that was going on as we approached the promised End of the World). Someone told me they thought they’d seen a brief passing mention of it on The Drudge Report a week or two earlier, but I was never able to confirm that. Less understandably, there wasn’t a peep about it on any of the usually reliable conspiracy websites or newsgroups. If there were conspiratorial whispers going around, no matter how insane or outrageous, I could always count on finding them circulating in the newsgroups. I was starting to get suspicious.

            I finally called Ms. Evers herself to ask where she’d heard the story, and she pointed me to Brown’s call-in show on WWRL. So I put in a call to Brown. Then I put in one to his assistant.

            As I waited to hear back, I contacted both Liberation Books in Harlem and Revolution Books in the East Village, but no one at either place had heard a thing about this Emancipation Proclamation business. I tried some of the more radical and paranoid community organizations around town, as well as radio hosts Art Bell and Gary Byrd, both of whom were clearinghouses for bubbling conspiracy theories. Only about one in ten of the people I spoke with had heard about the Emancipation Proclamation’s expiration date, and even then couldn’t tell me any more about it. They couldn’t even recall where they’d originally heard the story. Whether they’d heard about it or not, everyone dismissed it as nonsensical flapdoodle.

            Neither Brown nor his assistant returned my calls, but I went ahead with the story anyway, reporting what I could about a conspiracy with few if any admitted adherents. Given the response I received from people who make it their business to know about such things, I was getting the sense Brown may not have had quite the reach and influence he’d always claimed.

            The story ran in the New York Press on December 28th, 1999, and given we were a mere three days away from presumed Armageddon, few noticed. Or maybe they all just knew better.

            At this point, jump ahead twenty years, seventeen years after The Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to expire.

            When I sat down and began sketching out a list of possible subjects for a regular column about historical examples of Fake News, The Emancipation Proclamation hoax came to mind as one with interesting possibilities. Apart from the information I already had, I’d just need to do a little more research to see what others had come up with. I mean, how does something this patently false arise in the first place? I still wasn’t sure if the idea had originated with Brown. He might have heard it somewhere and decided to repeat it on the air. Or, like his 21st century conspiracy-mongering counterparts, he may have simply made it up out of whole cloth as a means of scaring his listeners into signing up for one of his seminars. I didn’t know.

            Had the story been planted by a group of media savvy black militants hoping to trigger a race war? Was it the work of white supremacists trying to do the same thing?

            There were other, more obscure possibilities. During an address before the NAACP in July of 1998, then-Vice President Al Gore commented that, when it came time for the 2000 census, Republicans “don't even want to count [blacks].” Various commentators took that remark and ran with it in several different directions. It was conceivable someone might have surmised the Vice President was hinting at something much more sinister down the line. Or maybe it was just a very peculiar response to the lawsuits levelled at Germany and Japan regarding the slave labor they employed during WWII. There were legal historians with Confederate sympathies who’d long argued The Emancipation Proclamation was never a legal document to begin with, as Lincoln had said nothing about compensation for those who would lose their property. Who knows? I wanted to know where it came from.

            Even if nobody was talking about it back in 1999, certainly in the intervening years, I figured, the people, The Museum of Hoaxes or the Fortean types must have gotten their hands on it, if only to dismiss it once and for all.

            But as I began with the clumsiest, most ham-fisted online search imaginable, figuring I’d be barraged with thousands of references, the only story that came up—the only one!—that even mentioned the hoax was that piece I wrote back in 1999. Other, more refined searches and various permutations of key words yielded the same result. There was nothing on the conspiracy sites, and there wasn’t even a hint of it on Wikipedia, for godsakes. My old story is the only one out there that mentions the Emancipation Proclamation hoax. Even Tony Brown’s own extensive website is mum on the question..

            Yes, well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into this sort of thing. Of course the fact the story has been so effectively obliterated save for that one piece adds a whole new potential wrinkle to things.

            Cynical and dismissive as that 1999 story was, I still think Tony Brown owes me a debt of gratitude for being the only media professional fool enough to help perpetrate his pointless crackpot story, though it says something that in this instance, my efforts had absolutely no effect at all.


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