Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States — an event worthy of praise songs, cookouts, and parades. Yet, it is also a cruel story of justice delayed. It took two years to get the word to the enslaved people in Texas that their bondage had ended earlier when President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.
Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived with his Union troops into the city of Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and triumphantly read from General Order No. 3, proclaiming that the enslaved people now had “absolute equality of rights.” Despite the tardiness of the notice and an unknown future, the newly freed erupted in celebration. This is the story behind the annual national Juneteenth event.
However, the problem of the interminable delay of civil rights is what is fueling today’s civil unrest. Yesterday’s praise songs and parades have turned into today’s protests and pleas to stop police brutality. Part of the reason is in the small print of General Order No. 3: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
It was a sign the American government would provide little succor to the newly freed. The Marshall Republican, an influential weekly newspaper at the time the Texan Confederate Army surrendered, predicted that Northern manufacturers would fight to reestablish slavery when they realized that an enslaved workforce was more profitable. Another paper, the Houston Telegraph, pushed a policy of poverty-level wages for the formerly enslaved people. And marauding bands of angry ex-Confederate soldiers violently attacked the ex-slaves without fear of retribution.
Soon the dancing and feasting gave way to a new normal. The freedman would be left to manage their freedom as best they could amid unrelenting poverty and state-sanctioned violence. When we celebrate Juneteenth, we cannot forget the horrific injustices that crashed our party.
It was our state’s founding father, William Penn, who is credited with the quote that “to delay justice is injustice.” Research shows that one significant factor in determining if the justice system is fair and just is the time taken to resolve a dispute. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed Penn when he reminded the world that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Juneteenth is our day of independence in a way that July 4th, which celebrates America’s independence from British rule, can never be. On July 5, 1852, a decade before the end of slavery and Maj. Gen. Gordon brought the news to the enslaved people of Galveston, Frederick Douglass stood before an audience of white allies and asked his most famous question: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”
His answer, an attack on the complicity of white silence, still resonates today.
“I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
June 19, 2020, will be the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. This year’s celebration comes in the midst of a pandemic and global protests over police brutality, both the ills of slavery that continue to cost a disproportionate number of black lives. The job of the 21st-century civil rights movement will be to dismantle a structurally racist system that has been maintained by oppression and hate.
Social justice advocates have to ensure the promise of freedom is no longer an empty vow. One first step in that direction is a call to designate Juneteenth as a federal holiday. In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney announced on Tuesday that the city will honor June 19 as a holiday, which means city offices and facilities will be closed. To be most effective, it would have to be a national remembrance of the millions of men and women whose involuntary sacrifice built the America we know today — prosperous and powerful. It would help white America understand the pain upon which their privilege rests. It would encourage black America to remember our ancestors with our festivities. It would benefit us all to use Juneteenth to recommit ourselves to creating a more just tomorrow.