Thanks to Black American leaders like retired teacher and activist Opal Lee and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, we now celebrate Juneteenth – also called Emancipation Day or Freedom Day - as a federal holiday. The 46th president of the United States, Joseph Biden, signed this historic legislation on June 17, 2021.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that all enslaved people in Confederate states were to be freed as of January 1, 1863. However, Confederate General Robert E. Lee did not surrender until more than two years later, on April 8, 1865. And it wasn't until June 19, 1865 that Union troops arrived at Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War was over and the last remaining 250,000 slaves were free. The executive order stated, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”
Initially, important steps toward equality for Black Americans, like the protection of voting rights, seemed promising. However, when the federal troops that enforced emancipation withdrew from the south, Black Americans were faced with increased disenfranchisement and an erosion of the steps that had been made toward equality. They have continued to face the aftermath of more than 230 years of slavery, including institutionalized racism and systemic dehumanization. You can learn more in this Racism topic, which points to a needed change of heart as well as actions to transform social systems.
Juneteenth is a day to remember the promise of freedom and equality. It is a day to recognize the truth of U.S. history, and to realize that the struggle for freedom and equality has yet to be realized for many Americans. It calls Americans to come together, work together, transcend divides, stand in solidarity, and celebrate unity. It is a day to strengthen our efforts to ensure that the history of Black Americans is remembered in our generation and future generations. It is a day to renew our commitment to fulfill our country’s promise, pairing our sense of hope with a demand for change: to be advocates for racial and economic justice for all.
To Name This Day …
Support Black American-led and Black American-serving campaigns. Here is a list of initiatives and movements you might consider including as part of your Juneteenth commemoration:
- Racial justice talks and symposiums
- Voting rights protections
- Economic equality, such as calling for the cancellation of all federally owned student loans by executive order
- Police reform
- Educational initiatives, such as parent-led cooperative preschool programs or other programs that support mothers and families
- Alternative first-responder agencies for addiction and mental health intervention
- Educational materials and services for Black Americans behind bars
- Legal defense funds for wrongly convicted Black Americans
- Education-system, prison-system, and justice-system reforms to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline and mandatory minimum sentencing
Expand your understanding of this holiday through these books which touch on themes of freedom, dignity, and equality.
Conversations with God by James Melvin Washington powerfully and movingly chronicles the spiritual struggle with slavery and racism.
Forged in the Fiery Furnace by Diana L. Hayes gives a substantive history of African American spirituality, "born of the pride and the pain, the horror and the hope of a people whose eyes have always been watching God and whose hands stayed firm on the plow as they fought their way to freedom."
Race Matters by Cornel West is a sharp prophetic cry for Black freedom, justice, and transformation.
The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Coretta Scott King offers 120 quotations from the great civil rights leader which shine with a sense of inherent dignity and high destiny.
Beautiful Shades of Brown by Nancy Churnin tells the true story of Laura Wheeler Waring, a Black-American artist whose love of her craft brought her paintings to the National Portrait Gallery.
Change Sings by Amanda Gorman, the first-ever U.S. youth poet laureate, is a soaring ode to inner and outer transformation that advocates for the environment, racial equality, and gender justice.
Daddy Speaks Love by Leah Henderson focuses on the bond between fathers and children, building a more compassionate world, with a special focus on George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.
Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free by Alice Faye Duncan recounts the quest for freedom as seen through the eyes of the leader of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
These e-courses focused on the Black-American experience are part of the the We the People Book Club, an opportunity to strengthen your vision of democracy by contemplating America's past and possibilities as presented by classic and contemporary literary voices.
Exploring The Fire Next Time and Between the World and Me: This course sets side-by-side two authors who might be considered a literary father and son: James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Both of the books covered are concise, remarkably candid reflections on growing up black in America.
Exploring Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston's stirring novel indicts the myriad forms of discrimination that get in the way of a Black woman's self-expression and freedom. The novel follows the life of Janie Woods, a woman with a voracious appetite for experience, a free spirit in a world of fear, status, and materialism.
Exploring The Underground Railroad: Colson Whitehead's book about escaping slavery is an important and timely innovation to the literary tradition of the slave narrative which became a #1 New York Times Bestseller, received the National Book Award for fiction in 2016, and then won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction in 2017.
A Great Fellowship of Love by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., petitions God for help in establishing a fellowship of love and unity.
Free at Last! Free at Last! By Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., voices his vision for a global beloved community.
The Buoyancy of Hope by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., closed out his sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” in 1958.
Universality of Thy Love is a prayer from Bishop Lawson in 1925 for freedom from racial prejudice.
To honor Juneteenth through spiritual practice:
Reflect on Clyde W. Ford's thoughts about how to create a personal vision to end racism.
Explore an accessible toolkit for fighting institutional racism created by Paul Kivel.
As a way to counteract racial and other oppression, check out these ways you can practice socially responsible economics with these guidelines by Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda and Habib Todd Boerger.
Hold a meditation and conversation about the stereotypes that impact us, based on the process suggested here by Claudio Horwitz.
"Remember my words for safekeeping. Remember what I say. Juneteenth is bigger than Texas, singing, or dancing bands. Juneteenth is freedom rising. And freedom is for everyone. Juneteenth is you and me."
— Opal Lee in Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free by Alice Faye Duncan
"We have to recognize that there is a radical continuity between the killing fields of the plantations, the bodies hanging from the trees, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina."
— in Hope on a Tightrope by Cornel West
"You must lay your lives on the altar of social change so that wherever you are there the Kingdom of God is at hand!"
— in A Strange Freedom by Howard Thurman
"I'm the voice where freedom rings.
You're the love your bright heart brings.
We are the wave starting to spring,
For we are the change we sing."
— in Change Sings by Amanda Gorman
Listen to Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. share his Juneteenth meditation, "All Americans Together."