Juneteenth: A Day To Recommit To Making Freedom A Reality

In America today, June 2020 has been rent by massive outrage and violent protest due to the inescapable fact that in more than a century-and-a-half, so little real progress has been made toward making that freedom a meaningful fact of daily life for millions in this country who are descendants of those who were formerly enslaved, and others. The frequency and the rate at which African-American men die at the hands of police is stunning evidence that there remains a grotesque and shameful, systemic inequality that makes a mockery of the notion of full freedom for all. In an especially egregious example of – to be generous – cluelessness, (or something far more repulsive) a major political rally for a candidate, one who has demonstrated contempt for both June’s protesters and the cause of their protest, was planned for today, 19 June 2020, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which ninety-nine years ago this month was the scene of what is likely the most destructive and deadliest “race riot” in this nation’s history: The Greenwood Massacre.

So it is that we find 19 June 2020 does not arrive in a time where celebration and rejoicing seem apt. We are in a time that demands reflection and remembrance as well as education. And we are in a time that demands action. No longer can “business as usual” continue. I therefore write about the event in 1865 to educate. But I also resolve to work to bring about tangible improvements in the state of this country. Writing is no major action, but helping to educate is a needed step.

One hundred fifty-five years ago today, on this date in 1865, a Monday, Major General Gordon Granger of the United States Army, landed at Galveston, Texas and proclaimed that the Emancipation Proclamation of two and a half years earlier was thereafter in effect in the Department of Texas. Granger posted notice, by broadsheet and by cryer, that the enslaved people in Texas were thenceforth and forevermore free, that the relationship between them and their former masters would be one of “absolute equality,” and that former masters were to become employers while the formerly enslaved were free labor.

The impact of General Granger’s delivery of the news is debated to this day. Accounts differ about the immediate impact; there may or may not have been dancing in the streets and spontaneous revelry that particular day in 1865, though it seems likely. But quite quickly in the years that followed, June 19th, contracted into the euphonious “Juneteenth”, became a day of celebration, feasting, rejoicing and prayer throughout Texas. As formerly enslaved Texans migrated to other states, Juneteenth celebrations and traditions were carried with them.

By the early 20th century, Juneteenth observances had become less common as the generation who had been present in 1865 faded away. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, interest in Juneteenth revived. Today some of the largest Juneteenth celebrations are held far from Texas, in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin! Juneteenth celebrations mark a recognition of the vast difference between a legal status, as when the enslaved people were theoretically freed in 1863, and a real status, as when Union troops arrived in Texas with the news.

I think that Juneteenth is really an appropriate day for all Americans to take note; freedom is truly meant for all people, and it cannot mean much to a free people if they permit or engage in the enslavement of other people. Equally true, is that freedom means little to people for whom the fact of their birth and heritage effectively continues to impose shackles, metaphoric shackles as well as metal shackles, in fact, upon them and their families. It is clear that there is so much work to be done. Freedom can never be taken for granted. It is not enough to speak of it, or even to write of it. Freedom demands our active involvement to address and to resolve the continued wrongs born of an invidious past and nurtured by ongoing indifference.

Therefore, on Juneteenth 2020, take a moment to be grateful for the freedoms we have, and remember they must never be taken for granted. Reflect upon the unspeakable joy that must have been in the hearts of those who were still enslaved when they heard the glorious news that fine June day so long ago, “You are free!” And recognize that the unfulfilled promise of 1865 requires our renewed and vigorous commitment to its realization.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last
Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last

Free At Last, a Spiritual

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