February 1 is National Freedom Day, a day for commemorating the signing of the 13th amendment in 1865.
As we reflect on the 150th anniversary of the signing of this important piece of the Constitution, we are reminded that our modern-day work of fighting for the end of slavery in our world has roots that stretch deep into history, and our struggles have much in common. Here are 3 things we at Love146 have learned through fighting for freedom…
1. FREEDOM IS A JOURNEY, NOT AN EVENT.
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, but the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States, wasn’t signed until February 1, 1865. It actually wasn’t ratified by enough states for it to be considered valid until December 1865. Lincoln was assassinated in April—he died without being able to see the 13th Amendment officially become part of the Constitution.
Alhough the amendment formally abolished slavery throughout the United States, black Americans were not instantly freed. They faced violence, discrimination, and Black Codes—laws that heavily regulated what black Americans could and could not do. For example, under many of these codes black Americans could not assemble, bear arms, become literate, speak freely, or testify against white Americans in court.
A history of slavery often shapes the lived experience of those who are “freed.”
At Love146, we recognize that freedom isn’t something that happens in one day. We have watched as survivors have journeyed toward freedom. For some survivors this journey may take months, for others years. What is important is that survivors have a place where they can journey to freedom safely. One survivor we’ve served shared, “The police were there and they got us. We were rescued but I didn’t know we were being helped until later. Then we were brought to Love146. It’s in Love146 that I feel I am taken care of. In your whole life that happiest moment is to feel free from darkness.”
2. SIMPLISTIC NARRATIVES DON’T HELP US.
Being human means we are complex characters—not reducible to labels or exaggerated caricatures. Certainly labels like “ho” and “slut” are offensive attempts by others to define some of the youth we serve. But beyond than that, we should also refuse to portray them as wide-eyed, pleading, and powerless. At Love146 we are inspired by the power, wisdom, beauty, and strength of the children we work with. We are also inspired by the power, wisdom, beauty, and strength of our supporters.
We all have a place at the table in fighting trafficking—calling one person the “poor victim” and another the “knight in shining armor” takes away the complexities that everyone brings to the table. Giving and receiving aren’t postures we can divide and assign. We all have things we can offer, and we all have work to do if freedom is going to be realized for all people.
3. EMPATHY REQUIRES LISTENING.
Much time is wasted and damage caused by passionately concerned people taking action without pausing to listen, really listen, to those affected. This isn’t to say people can’t join the conversation if they haven’t personally experienced exploitation—not at all. It is important, however, to recognize the importance of lived experience and to honor those who are affected by listening carefully and reaching a place of understanding. Listening well requires humility and honesty—being honest about the limits and gaps in knowledge. Listening to those with lived experience also allows us to dialogue and explore questions with the intention of fuller understanding and more effective action.
There are some who have survived trafficking and exploitation who choose to publicly share their stories, there are some who prefer their motivations in fighting for freedom to be held privately, and there are some who want to move in a completely different direction where they are not identified based on these experiences of their past. These are all postures that should be honored. Supporting freedom for survivors of slavery and exploitation means accepting the diverse ways that they choose to walk in that freedom. It can be harmful to tell survivors to respond to their experiences by speaking out. If, however, a survivor does share their perspective and experiences—whether to an audience of one or thousands—we should be listening.
In deciding what to put inside the backpacks given to at-risk and exploited youth through our U.S. Rapid Response program, we turned a listening ear to those affected. We asked the survivors we work with what they would have wanted to receive. This conversation determined many of the items we now share, and it is these items that often receive the best response from the youth we serve. Our U.S. Survivor Care program was developed and refined through listening conversations with survivors of trafficking—learning from their perspectives what would have been helpful for them. Similarly, much of our research in Asia is based on diligently listening to those in present or recent situations of trafficking or exploitation, doing analysis, and making suggestions available for local organizations to implement in their interventions with these affected persons.
THE STORY OF NATIONAL FREEDOM DAY
Robert Wright was a nine-year-old enslaved boy living in Georgia when Lincoln signed the joint resolution. In early 1942, at age 86, he began an intensive lobbying effort for the creation of National Freedom Day. He invited local and national leaders to meet to organize a movement for a national holiday to commemorate Lincoln’s signing of the 13th Amendment. The resulting National Freedom Association proposed having a memorial date to call attention to the continuing struggle for freedom for African-Americans.
The “adoption of National Freedom Day,” Wright claimed, “implies that all men are not only equally entitled to all the freedoms, but some men in seeking to possess and enjoy these freedoms, must realize that they cannot have them without sharing them with others. In practice, they must prove that our declaration of freedom includes all men.”
Senator Joseph Guffey linked National Freedom Day with the Four Freedoms and asserted that the day should remind Americans not only “that much freedom has been won” but also that “much more freedom remains to be won…. The fight never ends.”
National Freedom Day wasn’t adopted until June 30th, 1948. Just as Lincoln didn’t live to see the 13th Amendment confirmed, Major Wright died a year before his dream of National Freedom Day was a reality. One newspaper account reported that Wright’s “last distinguishable words” as he lay on his deathbed were “National Freedom Day.”