Juneteenth holiday celebrates freedom

Commentary

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. The celebration marks the events of June 19 (“Juneteenth”), 1865, when Union General Gordon Grangergy read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, effectively freeing over a quarter million enslaved Blacks in the state. The only problem was that the Proclamation was two and a half years old by then. (While there are varying theories explaining the deferment of freedom, many believe that it was for prolonging the exploitation of enslaved Texans.) However, when the news of emancipation spread, it sparked a variety of celebrations in Texas’ African American communities. The day has continued to be recognized.

Juneteenth was first commemorated by political rallies to teach former enslaved African Americans about voting rights and other civic engagements new to them. Festivities throughout the nation mark Juneteenth today. In Texas, official Juneteenth committees organize events.

The length of Juneteenth festivities varies. In some cases it is a day, in others a week, and in some areas a month is marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics and family gatherings.

According to the official Juneteenth web site (www.juneteenth.com), the celebration is an occasion for reflection and rejoicing as well as a time for assessment, self-improvement and for planning the future.

“Its growing popularity signifies a level of maturity and dignity in America long overdue. In cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities and religions are joining hands to truthfully acknowledge a period in our history that shaped and continues to influence our society today. Sensitized to the conditions and experiences of others, only then can we make significant and lasting improvements in our society,” the web site states.

This Juneteeth, however, there is yet another deferment to contemplate, this one over 86 years old.

On June 13, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution officially expressing remorse for its unwillingness for decades to outlaw the lynching of African Americans and others. This collusion with what Sen. Mary Landrieu called “an American form of terrorism” was responsible for the deaths of over 4,700 people (these included 3,440 black women and men) between 1882, when records were first kept, and 1968, when the practice diminished.

Lynching was a terror tactic used to intimidate African Americans into social and political submission in the post-slavery/post-Reconstruction era. Often witnessed by huge masses in local communities as a spectacle or entertainment, many Blacks were lynched for outspokenness or other presumed offenses against whites or in the aftermath of “race riots.” In many instances the practice involved the cooperation of law enforcement.

There were several attempts to outlaw lynching over the decades. One of the devices used to prevent the passage of such legislation was the filibuster. It is an ironic twist of history that Judge Priscilla R. Owen, and several other ultra-right Bush judicial nominees with an agenda to roll back the civil rights agenda, received virtually no opposition to their nomination because of the absence of the filibuster through a bipartisan “compromise” on the matter.

Celebration of Juneteenth, or African American Emancipation Day, has spread from its Texas origins to across the United States and beyond. Juneteenth is also recognized to be about rejoicing, struggle and voter activism, and can also be appreciated in that context. Juneteenth also commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement. There is a growing movement to have Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday called National Emancipation Day.

Martin Frazier (mfrazier@pww.org) is a PWW contributing editor on African American/Caribbean/African affairs.