Juneteenth: A Celebration. A Commemoration. A Call to Action

Tuesday, June 13, 2023
A photo of a Juneteenth flag
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day in which enslaved peoples in Texas learned that they had been emancipated. Federal troops entered Galveston, Texas that day to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. This occurrence fell two and a half years after the emancipation proclamation was signed on September 22, 1862. During those two plus years, the state of Texas continued to benefit from the enslavement of approximately 250,000 Black people. Juneteenth has been recognized by Black people in the United States for many years. It became a federal holiday in the U.S. on June 17, 2021.

Celebration of freedom

While it is true that Juneteenth commemorates a terrible time in history, it is a cause for celebration, because Juneteenth represents freedom. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for enslaved people to learn they were finally free: that they no longer were the “property” of another human; that they could hold their families together and have the hope of land, education, and prosperity. The ending of the institution of slavery itself is something to cheer. 

Long before Juneteenth became a federal holiday, Black people across this country celebrated this freedom with festivals, parties, cookouts, and so much more. And beyond Juneteenth, so many things we celebrate and enjoy in this country, arose out of Black people’s contributions to our culture and society.

Commemoration of harms and oppressions that still have impact today

At the same time, when we acknowledge Juneteenth, we must reckon with multiple harms. We acknowledge the harm that befell those 250,000 enslaved individuals who continued working under harsh conditions without pay for two-and-a-half years beyond legal emancipation. We acknowledge the emancipation itself and the more than two hundred years that Black people worked without pay, lived in harsh conditions, endured family separation when relatives were sold away to other “owners,” experienced legally sanctioned physical and sexual assault, and a host of indignities too numerous to list.

Enslavement is a stain on our country’s history, one that has had generational impact, and something that should not be forgotten or relegated to a footnote. Thus, we also stop, acknowledge, and take stock of the harms and oppressions from the times of enslavement, and acknowledge how so many of those harms continue to live on in the lives of Black people in the U.S. today.

These generational harms include Jim Crow laws; “separate but equal” policies; and redlining laws limiting where Black people could live, lynching and other forms of violence, the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, just to name a few. And when the civil rights movement began in earnest in the 1950s and 1960s, further harms included violence against peaceful protesters, beatings by police and by private individuals, imprisonment of those fighting for freedom, the bombing of churches, the unleashing of attack dogs against Black people and their allies, and so much more.

In the daily lives of Black people today there is an experience of ongoing harm reverberating from enslavement – dropout/pushout rates in schools, poor health outcomes, police intimidation, and other forms of violence. In recent months, and in multiple states, harms include efforts to remove books and school curricula which would highlight Black history and culture, under the guise of “anti-wokeness.” The true purpose of such actions is to erase Black people and any recognition that we are indeed fully human and full contributors to society.

Once upon a time in this country by law, Black people had been declared less than human. Black lives did not matter, by operation of law, and by social norms. And this categorization lives on in the national mindset, showing up across multiple systems in our society. One need only examine the current disparities in educational offerings and outcomes for Black people, the staggering health disparities for Black people (including alarming infant mortality rates) or the prevalence of state violence against Black people – administered through police violence, child welfare systems, and mass incarceration – to know that we remain in a struggle for Black lives to matter. Thus, the modern call that Black lives DO matter arises out of this historical context in which Black people had no right to their own bodies, family members, property, or freedom of any kind.

The modern call of Black Lives Matter is a quest to bring genuine equitable conditions to the lives of Black people in the US. The harms continue to exist, and operate at levels of the financial, health, and well-being of Black people. Similarly, the call for reparations, is a long overdue attempt to determine how we might right the wrongs of the past, the past wrongs that still cause harm.

Call to action

We ask that one start with learning and understanding history, and particularly the ways in which the legacy of enslavement continues to limit the progress of Black people across generations, and ultimately harms all people in this country. It is critical also to not allow our elected officials to ignore this history either. We must hold them accountable and our strongest tool and loudest voice is our vote. We must also engage in the creation of laws. When policies can improve the lives of Black people those policies should be celebrated, supported, and put into place. Policies that further inequity and endanger Black lives and our shared freedom must be rejected – for our futures as a country and a society are bound together.

H.R. 40 is a bill before Congress with the simplest of purposes: “To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”

Despite the simplicity of its purpose and the minimal impact of establishing a commission to “study and consider,” this bill has not passed. This bill is a bare minimum beginning of a conversation about some of the myriad ways in which our country could repair the harms of the times of enslavement. The form reparations takes could be so many things, from investments in education, business ownership, property ownership – all the things that were and in many cases continue to be denied Black people in America. And yes, it could also be direct financial payments. But it won’t be anything if we do not start with the establishment of a commission to study and make recommendations for further action. The call for some form of reparations has been alive for decades, even Martin Luther King Jr., suggested the U.S. engage in repair. Failure to even study the problem feels like yet another message that Black lives do not matter. We strongly urge support of this legislation, and that those who do support it send the message to their legislators that they believe in repair, healing and the dignity of Black Americans. 

So, this Juneteenth, join in a celebration of freedom; commemorate where we as a country have done harm; and take action, not just on the 19th, but every day, to bring repair to our country and to collectively assert that Black lives matter – yesterday, today, and always.

Here are ways, courtesy of Dr. N. J. Akbar, the ACLU National Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer, you can learn more and become involved in both celebrating Juneteenth and uplifting Black lives. In so doing, we truly improve the lives of all of us.
  • Examine your relationship to freedom. Reflect on the following questions to deepen your understanding of how you understand freedom:
    • In what ways do you consider yourself to be free?
    • Where do you feel you still need to experience liberation?
    • How will you get there?
    • What tools and resources are critical to achieving autonomy and independence?  
  • Explore what it would look like to free others.
    • Do you hoard information, social capital, hierarchical positionality?
    • Do you actively seek ways to redistribute the power that you hold?
    • What are you willing to sacrifice to promote the work, wages and wealth of Black colleagues? 
  • Educate yourself on the legacy of how we got here as a nation and why there are mounting legislative efforts to erase Black history and the contributions of Black Americans to society.
  • Engage with events that honor and uplift Black struggle, culture and experience.
  • Encourage your family and friends to read or watch the 1619 project!