On this 129th annual occasion, we celebrate our emancipation from 200 years of chattel slavery, and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by the 16th president of the United States, to the effect:
''That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, are and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons.''
Thus marked our liberation from what historian John Hope Franklin called the ''peculiar institution'' of slavery, and the ongoing and ever present challenge that Peter Bramble calls ''the Overcome.''
Do you not hear today the voices of our ancestors in gleeful refrain singing ''Come down Moses, ain't gonna worry and cry no more, oh Lord my change is come''?
Can you not feel the rushing of their spirit, the tears of joy welling up in their eyes sitting around the campfire in old, tattered clothing waiting for the clock to strike midnight and to usher in their liberation?
You can't feel it if you've never been mistreated. You can't feel it if you've never been hurt and discriminated against. You don't understand it if you've never had the foot of oppression weighing on your neck . . . but oh if you have . . .
Then you know it was a glorious moment for our people who had held on and held out, who were patient without procrastination, who knew that the nights were cold and dark and dreary, but that joy would one day come in the morning.
But can you imagine the hurt and anguish those same ancestors must feel looking down on us today in 1992, seeing how, like lost sheep, we seem to have gone astray. Seeing how drug abuse, child abuse and God abuse have dramatically changed the nature of life in our communities.
Five days into Baltimore's new year seven people have been murdered. Two sisters, victims of a knife-wielding maniac. Two children, victims of a fire bomb thrown through the window of their East Baltimore row house.
We are no longer at war with the Union, we are at war with ourselves.
Or is it that simple?
How much can the law-abiding citizens in our communities do to end crime when they alone don't have the power, and they alone don't have the money, to redress the social inequities that give rise to crime?
If the national leaders who call themselves ''tough on crime'' deserved that label, they would stop pandering to voters' fear of the ''criminal class,'' and start doing something to limit the growth of that class. But they don't. President Bush shrugs and says ''you can't turn bad people into saints.''
True. We may not be able to turn bad people into saints, but we can turn saints into bad people -- if they don't get food, if they don't get shelter, if they don't get schooling, if they don't get a job, if they never get an opportunity. You can turn them into the invisible men and the invisible women of Ralph Ellison if you pretend they don't exist -- and never look their way.
But that's suicide. The best way to encourage people to tear down society is to give them no stake that society. And we give black youth no stake -- because it costs too much. Yet somehow we'll find money to build more prisons and hire more police, as if that were a cheaper and wiser investment than schooling and housing and jobs.
It is a dark time. It is not a time of hope, like the 1860s. It is not a time of victories, like the 1960s. But we, as a people, have suffered, endured and survived three centuries of slavery, oppression, deprivation, denial and disprivilege. We do, therefore, have the courage and conviction to summon a crack of sunlight to penetrate the gloom of the hour.
We come here today to summon the crack of sunlight by honoring those who 129 years ago, 150 years ago, 250 years ago, laid down their bodies as bridges so you and I could run across to freedom. To honor them meaningfully is to take inspiration from their sacrifice, and to use that inspiration to press onward toward final victory, toward the day when all persons are not merely created equal, but all persons are regarded equal: a victory that will rival the glorious occasion we commemorate today.
Kweisi Mfume represents Maryland's 7th District in Congress. This article is excerpted from remarks he made last Sunday at a ceremony marking the 129th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.