Proclamations: The Remembered and the Forgotten

| Image courtesy of the author

In late 1862 and after more than a year of war, President Lincoln reflected on news reports of battles won by federal troops, looked deeply into his troubled heart, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Overnight, 20,000 to 30,000 African American men and women, formerly in bondage but now behind Union lines, were made free.

More would become free as Union troops pressed south and west into Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. And as the president's words unlocked slave shackles in county after county, the course and the purpose of the Civil War changed. And America was changed.

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Mayors commonly issue proclamations, too. No one is set free. Not many hearts are changed.

In stilted language and with "whereas" clauses and a sententious "now therefore" climax, mayors proclaim "days" and "weeks" mostly at the request of civic and charitable organizations with a benign public relations purpose.

The city clerk of Lakewood and I have been going through old file boxes in the City Hall basement. One of the boxes contained a collection of mayoral proclamations from 1954 through 1972. Mayors proclaimed Safe Boating Week (July 1965) and Mrs. America Day (August 1962) and National Park Month (November 1972).

Often the mundane reveals poignancy. The calls to action and remembrance in the old proclamations measure fears and hopes, too.

August 12 to 29, 1955 was proclaimed a week of "solicitation for the stricken victims" of floods in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island caused by back-to-back hurricanes. November 19 through 25, 1961 was designated Mercy Week in support of fundraising to pay the medical and funeral expenses following the air disaster that killed 17 members of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo football team and left 23 others injured. October 21 to 28, 1962 was proclaimed Sabin on Sunday Days to urge residents to be inoculated with the new Sabin oral polio vaccine, part of a national effort to wipe out the childhood disease most feared by my parents and their neighbors. I remember getting my first dose of the Sabin vaccine that year.

Cleaner Air Week was repeatedly proclaimed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as smog in the Los Angeles Basin worsened even as efforts to control emissions began. "The abatement of air pollution is all its various forms is of utmost concern," the proclamation asserts, adding a small voice to the public's demand for better air quality.

Ecology Week and Earth Day proclamations followed in the 1970s.

The Cold War fostered other fears that needed a name and a week. Know Your America Week (November 1959), Americanism Week (October 1961), Free World Friendship Week (April 1962), American Heritage Day (July 1965), and Patriotic Education Week (October 1966) re-calibrated the war zone in those years to my town, my neighborhood, my home.

"Days" and "weeks" and "months" are still proclaimed. Some are as aspirational as those in the old files, like Save Your Vision Week (October 1962), National Painting and Decorating Week (June 1965), and Now Is Time To Buy A Home Month (October 1966). Most proclamations today end up as a mark on a checklist of some public affairs intern in the distant headquarters of an NGO.

And yet the accumulating "whereas" clauses assert that they have some residual power as they roll toward the "now therefore" assertion that this day or week or month has been transformed into a memorial or a warning or a plea, as if the words themselves, like the words of the Emancipation Proclamation, can reform hearts and inspire new intentions.

The mayor proclaimed Newspaper Week in October 1965 to urge greater appreciation of the benefits of a free press. "Whereas," the proclamation added in a final clause, "newspapers perform a most essential function by providing a place where any citizen who wishes to make known his views ... may do so." That justification turned out to be false.

And the mayor's plea wasn't enough.

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