Emancipation Delayed, Freedom Denied

Emancipation Delayed, Freedom Denied

They slow-walked the news of Emancipation to Texas.  Hundreds of thousands of Black persons in Texas remained enslaved for at least two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.  But Texas slaves remained under the lash and denied their freedom until June 19, 1865 when Union Army Major General Gordon Granger proclaimed emancipation for the Texas slaves, supposedly putting an end to slavery in the United States.  But a close reading of the history of the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent struggle for freedom for Black persons in this country reveals the ongoing political compromises, overt and subliminal racial hatred and blatant determination of white supremacists to thwart the goal of true liberation for Black Americans.

Juneteenth, now a federal holiday, observes that date when news of emancipation finally reached the slaves in Texas.  But many of those slaves remained in chains as white slaveowners resorted to cruel and inhumane practices to thwart the goal of emancipation, from shipping their slaves to South America to killing them outright.  When most slaves were finally free of the devastation of the institution of slavery, the horrors of the Reconstruction era — the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the horrific plague of thousands of lynchings and beatings and torture of Black people, the denial of voting rights and legal protects, the enforcement of forms of discrimination that guaranteed generational poverty — these horrors went on for decades throughout the nation, leaving the stench of death and reality of evil that continues to plague too many people and places in the United States.

Many commentators today are musing on the bizarre American habit of turning serious historical anniversaries into festive commercial days with decorations and sales of consumer goods.  Memorial Day, Labor Day, Martin Luther King’s Birthday — these should be days for serious reflection, education and public service, not mattress sales.  Juneteenth now enters that strange place in our culture where the point of taking the day off from regular work to reflect on deeper issues in our society gets lost in frivolous commercial stuff.

Juneteenth is a historic landmark, yes, an important date on which Black Americans celebrate emancipation, liberation from slavery, freedom.  But amid the barbecues and celebratory events, let’s use the day to examine its true meaning:  emancipation delayed in the 1860’s was freedom denied for hundreds of thousands of Black persons then, and the denial of true freedom continues to this very day in too many places.   We learn much by paying closer attention to the ugly political compromises that great icons of American history made on the topic of race — from Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison refusing to deal with slavery because of their own economic and political interests, allowing the morally repugnant “3/5 compromise” to stain the Constitution; to Lincoln’s own compromises (including the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation did not cover all slaves, but only those in the confederate states) and doubts about the equality of Black persons; to the countless examples of the failures of those who make law and policy to protect full and complete civil and human rights for all persons of color in this nation — the rolling back of voting rights, the murders of Black persons at the hands of police, the naked hatred of emerging extremist groups marching to the siren song of white supremacist demagogues.  Let’s not kid ourselves:  the massive arming of America is, in some places, preparation to resume the civil war that some descendants of the old confederate way of life, including the oppression of Black persons, continue to wage.

When cancer cells get left in the patient, the disease grows again, consuming the good cells until all that’s left is the rot.  A nation that failed to eradicate completely the ideologies that allowed slavery to exist for hundreds of years now must contend with a resurgence of the racial hatred and conflict, the virulent rise of white supremacy that targets Black persons in supermarkets and churches, that curtails voting rights at a time when such rights needs expanded protection, that runs Black educators out of town and attacks teaching the truth about America’s tortured racial history.

The news of real emancipation is still slow-walking through American life, sometimes even running in reverse.  What we really need to be doing on this Juneteenth and all the days to come is a serious and sustained effort — politically, socially, educationally, morally — to make the idea of genuine emancipation — true freedom — a reality for those who continue to suffer egregious racial threats and real harms at the hands of those who still are fighting “the lost cause.”