Juneteenth: Freedom is a work in progress

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Juneteenth this year comes in the 150th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Though Lincoln had issued the proclamation on September 22, 1862, with an effective date of January 1, 1863, it had minimal immediate effect on most slaves’ day-to-day lives, particularly in the Confederacy, until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, Juneteenth celebrates Union Gen. Gordon Granger’s official declaration abolishing slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, after arriving in Galveston to take possession of the state.

Granger’s decree of “an absolute equality of personal rights” was one of the country’s most dramatic declarations of the actual end of slavery.

Juneteenth celebrations began the year after Granger’s pronouncement. In many parts of Texas, ex-slaves pooled their money to purchase land or “emancipation grounds” for Juneteenth gatherings, such as Emancipation Park in Houston, what is now Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, and Emancipation Park in East Austin.

Juneteenth is one of the oldest celebrations marking the end of slavery in the United States and has been a solid African-American tradition since the late 19th century. Forty-two states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or state holiday observance, and it has been an official Texas state holiday since 1980.

There is a profound juxtaposition between Juneteenth and Memorial Day, which we celebrate three weeks earlier.

One of the earliest recorded events similar to our current Memorial Day tradition came on May 1, 1865, when former slaves in Charleston, S.C., honored the 257 Union soldiers buried there in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp.

They worked two weeks digging up the bodies to give the soldiers a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a solemn parade of 10,000 people, led by 2,800 African-American children, paying tribute to the soldiers.

The powerful juxtaposition between these two holidays should remind us of Martin Luther King Jr.’s reminiscence that abolishing slavery and discrimination is a double emancipation — both for the one being held bound and the one holding the other bound.

Working to support another’s freedom gives us our own freedom. We cannot tolerate degrading, abusing, and exploiting another without debasing ourselves. It may not be as physically damaging, but it is morally corrupt and spiritually crushing.

The work of freedom still goes on. The vestiges of our country’s long oppressive history of slavery and racism, which spread to other groups, still plague our national soul. We may have knocked down the walls of our own apartheid, but we still stumble over the ruins of segregation.

Our governor has vetoed a bipartisan equal pay act, and the courts are dismantling affirmative action plans designed to open the doors of college education and the workplace for those whose parents, grandparents and ancestors were barred from entering.

Our elementary and secondary schools have re-segregated; and higher-equity, non-minority schools reap the benefit of private financial subsidies and greater opportunity.

Until we are fully committed to leveling the playing field, we can’t truly have the freedom that democracy promises.

Juneteenth should be a day not only to commemorate the ending of physical slavery, but a day we commit ourselves to the “absolute equality of personal rights” and pledge ourselves to work in that worthy cause.

James C. Harrington is the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

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