Today is Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the ending of legal slavery in the United States. First celebrated in Galveston, Texas, on July 19, 1865, as African Emancipation Day, Juneteenth has become an official event where African American history, achievement, culture and progress is embraced and honored.
According to the official Juneteenth website, there was an over two year lag between the official proclamation that slaves had been freed and the point in which the news reached Texas and the Union had enough soldiers to actually enforce the new law, a delay that has numerous backstories and possibilities. “Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom,” explains the history page. ”Another, is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or neither of these version[s] could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question. For whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.”
As Texas itself was the epicenter of this now national celebration, it’s no surprise that the state is highly enthusiastic when it comes to participating, too. In Austin, the city is hosting its first Juneteenth music festival, adding on to an already existing parade and other events.
Texas politicians are participating in Juneteenth celebrations as well, including State Senator and Democratic Governor nominee Wendy Davis. “This past weekend, I walked in the Forth Worth Juneteenth parade alongside Senator Davis and a wonderful woman named Mrs. Opal Lee,” writes Davis’s African American Organizing Director Phaedra Jackson. ”Mrs. Lee, who led the parade, also organized it. As I watched this woman from several generations before me proudly march down the street, celebrating the moment that made us all more equal, I felt a sense of pride and responsibility—to her and to the generations before me who never knew the freedoms that I enjoy today. As you light your grills and bring your families together in celebration this weekend, take time out to remember the Opal Lees of the world and those that came before her. It’s because of them that we march in parades and bring our families together to commemorate the legacy of freedom.”
Not everyone in Texas is embracing the celebration. In what is at best a moment of bad timing or at worst a deliberate slap in the face of the history of the day, Texas Republicans picked the day before to officially release their far right party platform, a portion of which is dedicated to repealing the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).
“Without the VRA, the only bar on racial discrimination in voting would be the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution,” reports Zachary Roth at MSNBC.com. ”These weren’t enough to stop a century of Jim Crow, which used tactics like literacy tests to get around the prohibition on explicitly denying the right to vote on account of race. It was only thanks to the VRA, which took a broader view of what constitutes racial discrimination in voting, that the right to vote for all Americans was meaningfully assured.”
It took years to get the news of emancipation to the still enslaved African Americans of Texas, and it took another century to move forward in offering full civil rights such as voting and protection from discrimination. Today, as we celebrate Juneteenth, we need to all pledge to do what we can to ensure that those rights are not rolled back.
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons