Juneteenth in the age of Black Lives Matter


Black Americans have yet to fully realize the freedoms hoped for

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service


LOUISVILLE — Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing those who were enslaved, in January 1863. However, it wasn’t until two years later, on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. After this, more than 250,000 slaves across Texas learned that they were free.

The celebration of June 19 was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants of slaves as they treated the day as their Independence Day. As early as 1866, freed slaves in Texas held celebrations on this date to commemorate and celebrate the end of slavery.

As American descendants of slavery began to migrate from southern states, particularly after the Great Depression, observance of the day spread throughout the country. In 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his Poor People’s Campaign held a Juneteenth Solidarity Day, giving the holiday a new prominence in the civil rights movement.

Fast forward to 2020 and the question arises: What significance will Juneteenth have in the age of the #BlackLivesMatter movement? Created in 2013, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression,” according to the Black Lives Matter website.

The movement was started by three radical black organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

For three consecutive weeks people across and U.S. and around the world continue to protest the blatant disregard for black lives. In the wake of the long list of senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and countless others whose names we may never know, protesters are calling for immediate police reform.

While Juneteenth has been celebrated by blacks since the 1866, relatively few white Americans know the significance of the day to black Americans, or its history. Recently Juneteenth has become a hot topic because of the president’s original decision to hold a campaign rally on that day in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Many feel Trump’s decision would further polarize the nation with his choice of dates and locations. Tulsa’s Greenwood District is the home of the 1921 race massacre. Dubbed as one of the worst massacres in American history, an estimated 150 to 300 individuals lost their lives when mobs of white residents attacked and bombed black residents and businesses in the area. The rally has since been rescheduled for the following day.

Juneteenth is not an official U.S. holiday but to date it is recognized in 47 states and by major corporations around the country. Most recently Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter, and the founder and CEO of Square, a mobile payments company, made Juneteenth a formal company holiday at both Twitter Inc. and Square Inc. Additional companies and organizations observing Juneteenth include The New York Times,  the National Football League, Target, Vox Media Inc., Nike Inc., and Harvard University, among others, which will offer their employees a paid holiday in observance of the day. MasterCard as well will give employees a paid day off and encourages them to educate themselves about the history of racism in America or volunteer with a civil rights organization. Facebook Inc. plans to have a “day of learning” about the experience of black Americans. All meetings at Facebook will be canceled on that day.

And while we celebrate Juneteenth and its symbolic meaning, clearly, black Americans have yet to realize the freedoms hoped for by Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. According to an article from the Ashbrook Center, of Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, many historians argue that Lincoln was not really motivated by a commitment to end slavery as his reason for emancipating enslaved Americans. The proof, they claim, is his famous letter to Horace Greeley in which he wrote that “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

The Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution, which includes the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, abolished slavery or involuntary servitude except in punishment for a crime; requires due process of law and requires equal protection to all people; prevents the denial of a citizen’s vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude; extended new constitutional protections; and worked to establish equality for black Americans.  However, to disenfranchise and remove the political and economic gains made by blacks during the Reconstruction period, state and local Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the southern United States were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white Democrat-dominated state legislatures.

And, while the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution extended new constitutional protections to blacks Americans, the struggle for full equality as stated in those amendments continue into the 21st century.

For example:

Black Americans fail to receive due process of law or equal protection. Instead, according to The Sentencing Project, 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 6 Latino men is likely to spend time in prison in their lifetime, as compared to 1 in 17 white men. And, according to a report on race and incarceration from the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, this racial disparity also exists for women – while 1 in 111 white women will spend time in prison, for Latina women this likelihood is increased to 1 in 45 and for black women 1 in 18.

Black Americans and other people of color are disproportionately impacted by voter suppression maneuvers. The American Civil Liberties Union  reports that:

  • Seventy percent of Georgia voters purged in 2018 were black.
  • Across the country, one in 13 black Americans cannot vote due to disenfranchisement laws.
  • One-third of voters who have a disability report difficulty voting.
  • Only 40 percent of polling places fully accommodate people with disabilities.
  • Across the country, counties with larger minority populations have fewer polling sites and poll workers per voter.

As the nation commemorates Juneteenth on Friday,  the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech The Other America ring just as true now as they did in 1968: “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?” …#BlackLivesMatter.

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