After Juneteenth, the struggle for equality continues

Celebrating Juneteenth will be important not just in remembering the past but in rededicating ourselves to building equal justice under the law in the future.

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Prescylia Mae (C) raises her fist in the air during a Juneteenth re-enactment celebration in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 2021.

A woman raises her fist in the air during a Juneteenth re-enactment celebration in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 2021.

Mark Felix/AFP via Getty

“Great nations don’t ignore the most painful moments. ... They embrace them,” said President Biden as he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act — passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate — to make Juneteenth — June 19th — a federal holiday.

Juneteenth, of course, had been celebrated across the country for decades, in public and in private ceremonies. The holiday marks the day in 1865, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that slavery was officially ended in Texas. On that day, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger announced, as his forces gathered in Galveston, that “The people of Texas are informed that ... all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves...”

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A myth grew up that no one in Texas had been aware of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves or of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the end of the Civil War. In fact, as historians have discovered, Texans — both masters and slaves — knew about these events, but slaveowners resisted freeing the slaves until they were forced to by the power of federal troops.

Juneteenth not only celebrates the end of slavery, it celebrates the continuing struggle for equality under the law. The defeat of the Confederate States in the Civil War was, in many ways, only the beginning of the struggle.

To enforce equal rights, Congress passed what is now recognized as the “second founding” — the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, outlawing slavery, guaranteeing equal protection under the laws, and protecting the right to vote against racial discrimination.

The Second Founding led to the era of Reconstruction across the South, where new coalitions were built, many uniting former slaves with small white farmers, to elect new leaders and create new state constitutions. In many states, this era led to dramatic reforms — spreading public education, strengthening the jury system, providing public support for libraries, parks, highways and roads and more.

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Even then, the struggle had only begun. Soon there was a reaction across the South as the former slaveowners and the plantation aristocracy organized to take back power. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized the newly freed slaves. Racial fears were used to break up the fusion politics. The federal troops were withdrawn. The black vote was suppressed. Soon the backlash was enforcing legal segregation, essentially apartheid, across the South. In took nearly another 100 years before the civil rights movement created a new era of reform.

That is why celebrating Juneteenth will be important not just in remembering the past but in rededicating ourselves to building equal justice under the law in the future. It celebrates both the triumph over slavery and the commitment to continue to work to overcome racial fears and create a more perfect union.

Today, a new movement for justice has challenged the entrenched racial disparities that mark our criminal justice system, our housing patterns, our schools and more. And a new backlash is pushing systematic efforts to suppress the vote - aimed often explicitly at African American voters - while rousing racial fears once more.

In this context, the new federal holiday offers a chance to celebrate how far we have come - and to mark once more how far we have to go.

We should not deny our past nor slight our progress nor fool ourselves about our current reality. We can celebrate together what we have overcome even as we dedicate ourselves to the work yet to be done.

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