On this Friday and Saturday, with the first federal observance of Juneteenth, we celebrate not a done deed, but a work in progress. We celebrate the beginning of the end of our nation’s great original sin, the institution of slavery — but only the beginning of the end.
Juneteenth recognizes the slow history of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was on June 19, 1865, that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were told that Abraham Lincoln had freed people held in bondage in Confederate states more than two years earlier. But if the new federal holiday is to have real meaning and be a force for good, it must also recognize that the fight for freedom continues.
Real freedom and equality for African Americans continues to play out, to this day, like a brutal game of keep-away. President Lincoln freed enslaved people, yes, but not fully. The Emancipation Proclamation, on Jan. 1, 1893, declared “forever free” enslaved people only in the states then engaged in rebellion against the Union.
After slavery came Jim Crow, a form of slavery in all but name.
After Jim Crow came the New Jim Crow, the structural racism of our own times.
A wealth of studies show that Black people in America continue to be more likely than white people to be brutalized by the police, to be sentenced to prison longer and to be executed more frequently. They are more likely to receive poor health care and to attend poorly funded schools. They are more likely to be prejudged just walking around town.
Juneteenth is a day to remember. Our nation, indisputably, has made great strides toward achieving the ideal of the Declaration of Independence — “all men are created equal” — that has been subverted in reality. All Americans should celebrate.
But Juneteenth is also a day to look ahead.
It is a day to recommit to doing all we can, as a nation and as individuals, to bring about a more just future for every American.
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