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Juneteenth: Not a Moment of Liberation, But an Ongoing Journey of Persistence and Hope

“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” -- W.E.B. Du Bois

Just a dozen years after Major General Gordon Granger’s Order Number 3 declared “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” the last federal troops withdrew from former Confederate states. Their withdrawal ushered in a near-century of legally-enforced racial segregation, white supremacist terrorism, and second-class citizenship for Black Americans.

Still, the celebration of Granger’s order, the holiday we celebrate on Monday as Juneteenth, endured.

The Great Migrations spread the celebration of Juneteenth from Texas to the rest of the nation. The June 19, 1968, Solidarity Day celebration – organized by Greater Washington Urban League Executive Director Sterling Tucker -- during the Poor People’s March on Washington may have played a role in popularizing Juneteenth.

“My theory is that these delegates for the summer took that idea of the celebration back to their respective communities,“ the late African American folklorist William Wiggins Jr. said. “Because it was used to close the Poor Peoples Campaign, the idea was taken back by different participants in that march, and it took root around the country. It has taken on a life of its own.”

Given this history, Juneteenth represents not a moment of liberation, but an ongoing journey of persistence and hope.

As President Biden said when he signed the bill designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday, “Emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning.”

The white supremacists who rejected the promise of equality during the Reconstruction era called their movement “Redemption” and referred to themselves as “Redeemers.” They undermined their political opponents and suppressed Black voters through a campaign of violence and intimidation.

The white supremacists who reject the promise of equality today are banning books, distorting history, and clamping down on the mere suggestion of systemic racism and inequities.

Among the nearly 700 measures that state, local and federal policy makers have introduced over the last two years was a little-discussed provision that would ban Illinois schools from “promoting the concept” that “meritocracy” and “a hard work ethic” are tools of oppression. In effect, the provision would stifle any suggestion that racial gaps in wealth or income, educational attainment, home ownership, civic engagement, or political representation are the result of anything other than merit and hard work.

Distortion of history is a familiar tool of white supremacy, from the “Lost Cause” mythology that Black Americans had been content – even fortunate -- to live under a system of oppression, to the “anti-woke” mythology that the system of oppression doesn’t exist.

Historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner described the earliest celebrations of Juneteenth as “a joyful retort” to “displays of Confederate glorification” and “valorization of the Lost Cause.”

Today, Juneteenth is our own “joyful retort” to the modern-day Lost Causers seeking to distort history and deny the presence of systemic and institutional racism.


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