A couple of years into the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” in the states engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Two years after the proclamation, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, was passed by Congress on January 31 1865, formally abolishing slavery. It states that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
However it was a couple of months after the Civil War had ended, on June 19 1865, when enslaved Black communities in Galveston, Texas learned that they were free.
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Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of institutionalized racism in the United States. After the Civil War and up until the 1960s, discriminatory Jim Crow laws were passed in local and state governments, legalizing racial segregation in schools, public pools, hospitals, restrooms, build entrances and more.
President Lyndon B. Johnson would finally put an end to the anti-Black laws by signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which was then followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965 giving minorities the right to vote, and the Fair Housing Act (1968) which ended discrimination in house rentals and sales.
But these laws didn’t stop racial injustice. While the 13th amendment gave Blacks their freedom, it also stipulated that slavery could be used as a form of punishment for criminals. Ava DuVernay’s Netflix film ‘13th‘ investigates how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery, with large groups of African Americans being arrested for minor crimes and low-level offenses such as loitering and vagrancy, in order to populate private prisons with cheap, slave-like labour.
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Racial injustice and racial discrimination are woven into American history and its institutions. Tackling intergenerational trauma, the inequity resulting from discriminatory laws and ongoing police brutality, Americans have taken to the streets to demand racial justice.
Weeks after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer, the country commemorates Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, on June 19 to celebrate African American freedom. Juneteenth is recognized in 47 states as a state or ceremonial holiday, but is isn’t recognized as a Federal holiday.
If America commemorates Independence Day on July 4, the day that the United States of America became an independent nation in 1776, then it surely should commemorate the freedom and independence gained by enslaved blacks on June 19th 1865?
Much of history is written by the victors and the dominant culture, and as we reflect on the social upheaval caused by Floyd’s murder, it’s important to also educate ourselves on Black history; to listen and learn, to empathise and take action to call out unjust laws and policies that disproportionately impact the Black community. In honor of Juneteenth, it’s important to stand in solidarity with the Black community to fight against racism and police violence and be a proactive ally.
To help commemorate Juneteenth and continue fighting for racial justice, here are some powerful messages:
“My people have a country of their own to go to if they choose… Africa… but, this America belongs to them just as much as it does to any of the white race… in some ways even more so, because they gave the sweat of their brow and their blood in slavery so that many parts of America could become prosperous and recognized in the world. ” – Josephine Baker, legendary entertainer and activist.
“Hold those things that tell your history and protect them. During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything? The ability to have somebody to tell your story to is so important. It says: ‘I was here. I may be sold tomorrow. But you know I was here.’ ” – Maya Angelou, literary icon and activist.
“We’re in denial of the African holocaust. Most times, people don’t want to talk about it. One is often restless or termed a racist just for having compassion for the African experience, for speaking truth to the trans-Atlantic and Arab slave trades, for speaking truth to the significant omission of our history. We don’t want to sit down and listen to these things, or to discuss them. But we have to.” – Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X.
“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” – Abraham Lincoln
“The flag that was the symbol of slavery on the high seas for a long time was not the Confederate battle flag, it was sadly the Stars and Stripes.” – Alan Keyes
“Slavery is theft – theft of a life, theft of work, theft of any property or produce, theft even of the children a slave might have borne.” – Kevin Bales, Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham.
“Where annual elections end where slavery begins.” – John Quincy Adams
“Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That’s why we need this holiday.” – Texas Democratic Rep. Al Edwards.
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Cover image via Library of Congress.