A piece of paper did not free the slaves, the Rev. Marlin Harris told an overflow crowd of 500 people at Tabernacle Baptist Church on Tuesday, the 139th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The slaves were free when they crossed the Atlantic, free when they set foot on the shores of Virginia and free when they walked the cotton fields of South Carolina, said the Rev. Harris, a 28-year-old who has preached more than half his life.
They were free, he said, when they were chained in the ships' holds but "were heard humming the songs of different African dialects ... singing in the bottom of slave ships - you can chain my hand, but you cannot chain my mind."
In the days when Laney-Walker Boulevard was called Gwinnett Street, former slaves would parade to Tabernacle to hold commemorative services organized by the Augusta Lincoln League, which sponsored Tuesday's event.
Tyrone Butler, founder of the Augusta Mini Theatre, was honored as the League's Citizen of the Year, and Dr. Ronald Brown Sr., a gastroenterologist, was honored as Business Person of the Year.
Dr. Brown's remarks on freedom and personal responsibility dovetailed with the message the Rev. Harris later delivered.
Dr. Brown said his grandmother would "maul" his head when he and his brother misbehaved and tell them, "They say you will never amount to anything."
"I have always wondered - as I wondered then - how can somebody else but you determine what you are going to be," he said.
In his remarks, the Rev. Harris said it didn't matter what society labeled people - if they maintained a relationship with God. "God has a way of making society a liar."
The same people who were promised 40 acres and a mule, worked as sharecroppers, sat at the back of the bus or came through the back door, "today in 2002, have achieved what they were told they would never achieve," said the Rev. Harris, founder and pastor of New Life Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga.
Black people have the uncanny ability to bounce back "to be resilient. That made this country what it is ... (our) power to wrestle with our own destiny."
Jacob in the Old Testament also grew up under a label - his name meant "trickster," the Rev. Harris said.
In Genesis, Chapter 32, Jacob wrestled with a man he later realized was the Lord. Though the Lord struck him in the hollow of his thigh, knocking his hip out of joint, Jacob would not let go until he got a blessing. The Lord blessed him and changed his name from Jacob to Israel, meaning "one who has power with God."
A wrestler with a broken hip can only do one thing - hold on to his opponent - and that was just what God wanted Jacob to do, the minister said.
People should be spiritually free, not just psychologically and economically free, the Rev. Harris said. "The only way you can get free on the inside (free of society's labels) is to wrestle with God," and hold on - no matter what.
Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.