Today, a lot of folks in South Carolina will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Emancipation Day.

Trouble is, far too many people don’t know exactly what this important chapter in history is all about.

On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect. It basically declared all slaves who were citizens of those states in “rebellion” against the United States to be free.

Now, to be sure, that accounted for most of the slaves in the country — 3.1 million out of a total of 4 million. But since those states had their own government, the Confederacy, they didn’t recognize Lincoln’s authority and promptly ignored it.

Some called it a political stunt. There are estimates that the proclamation actually only freed somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 slaves, some of whom were living around Port Royal, South Carolina — which had been under Union control for more than a year.

But the important thing here is that it was the first step.

“It touched off a wave of progress,” says the Rev. Joseph Darby, senior pastor at Morris Brown AME Church and first vice president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP. “It set the tone. When something changes the climate, that’s important.”

A defining moment

The Civil War is the most complicated period in our history, to put it mildly.

Southern states seceded from the Union over what they called “states’ rights” — they declared that they were tired of a domineering federal government interfering in their lives.

Now, most of that interference had to do with limitations on slavery, but Southern politicians couldn’t sell that to the populace. The vast majority of men who fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves and believed they were fighting for states’ rights.

Likewise, Northern troops believed they were fighting to preserve the union, not abolish slavery.

But after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slavery took on an even greater, and undeniable, prominence in the conflict.

Every time Union troops captured some part of the Confederacy, the slaves in that area were freed. Some of those freed slaves became part of the 200,000 African-Americans who fought for the Union during the war.

More importantly, the Emancipation Proclamation changed perceptions of human rights in this country.

A place in history

Ask any school kid today what Lincoln did, and chances are they will say, “He freed the slaves.”

They are talking about the Emancipation Proclamation.

The proclamation is a direct link to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the country, and ancestor of the modern Civil Rights movement a century later.

Time was, even more people celebrated Emancipation Day. But the tradition has waned somewhat, and that’s too bad. It’s not an overstatement to put the proclamation in the same league with the Declaration of Independence.

“It is significant every year when we can measure another year of solid progress, not just toward tolerance but acceptance,” says Dot Scott, president of the Charleston Branch NAACP. “It’s another day. The fight goes on.”