Thursday, June 19, 2008

Juneteenth: Slavery Then and Slavery Today

Today is Juneteenth. The name, which is a coloquial contraction of June 19th, commemorates the actual abolition of slavery throughout the entire United States at the end of the American Civil War.
The holiday began in Galveston Texas, where according to tradition, Union General Gordon Granger read the following proclamation from a balcony to an assembled crowd.
"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, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere".
The holiday, which has enjoyed grass roots support for generations is celebrated officially in twenty eight states and the District of Columbia.
The slavery that existed before Juneteenth was a blight upon America's revolutionary message to the world. It demeaned not only those enslaved but their masters as well. Its existence at one time continues to cast a long shadow across America. Some aspects of the welfare state, however well intentioned, aggravated rather than alleviated some of the problems they were meant to cure by weakening African American families. It would be safe to say that America continues to struggle not only with the problems of its past but some of the solutions as well.
It would be the greatest folly to believe that slavery is a relic of history. Today as centuries ago, men, women and children are bought and sold in countries such as Mauritania and Sudan. To this very day, the American Anti Slavery Group is active in combatting not only chattel slavery but bonded servitude, where debts with usurious interest are borne for years by families that have no nope of ever paying them. In countries such as India, where this practice is common, a fifty dollar debt can be a life sentence of hard labour.
It would be a great mistake to think that America is free of slavery. The wave of illegal immigrants has brought with it an undercurrent of sweat shop workers, agricultural workers and prostitutes from Asia, Europe and South America who are paying off huge debts to the gangsters who smuggled them into America. In many cases, they are prevented from melting into the anonymity of the urban landscape by credible threats against their families back home. There are many who are tricked and coerced with promises of high paying restaurant jobs into what turns out to be forced prostitution. This is a world wide problem in Europe and Asia as well. Runaways as well as drug addicts who are American born are also subject to this scourge.
Juneteenth would be a fitting time to focus on the modern day scourge of slavery that thrives in America and abroad centuries after its statutory abolition in America almost a century and a half ago.
The persistence and resilience of slavery in modern times reminds me of a well known quotation from William Faulkner. "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
We should not today or on any other anniversary on our national calendar consign our commemorations to the musty closet of our collective history. When the past is ignored, it has a way of blocking our path until we stop and pay it proper respect.
The message of Juneteenth remains that both the desire to enslave and the yearning for freedom persist eternally. Today and every day, we should remember and participate in this ongoing battle.
" Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm". (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Whatever our history as individuals or as a people, it should deepen our compassion for those whose struggles are unfolding today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The annual observance of Juneteenth provides America with the greatest opportunity to bring about a constructive resolution to the issue of the enslavement of Americans of African descent and the continued racial conflict that affects the nation.

Beginning in the year 2000, during the annual WASHINGTON JUNETEENTH National Holiday Observance, the "3rd Friday in June" has been set aside as the date for the National Day of Reconciliation and Healing From the Legacy of Enslavement. The day was established in recognition of former Congressman Tony Hall's (D-OH) ground breaking efforts to pass a congressional apology for slavery on the "19th of June", Juneteenth, 2000 at the first annual WASHINGTON JUNETEENTH National Holiday Observance.

While working closely with Congressman Hall, I learned first hand that America's slave legacy was still a very contemptuous issue for many Americans, who would rather ignore history then embrace the truth. Congressman Cohen's successful sponsorship of the House Apology For Slavery legislation has truly been a blessing to a nation that needs healing from the scars of slavery.

We will celebrate the passage of the Congressional Apology of Slavery during the 2009 National Day of Reconciliation and Healing From the Legacy of Enslavement. We will also continue to celebrate the passage of Apology For Slavery legislation, along with Juneteenth state holiday and state holiday observance legislation until we reach all 50 states. Five states are presently on record with Apology For Slavery legislation.

America needs healing from the legacy of slavery. The observance of Juneteenth in America affords the greatest opportunity for the nation to constructively deal with that legacy.

I hope that we can all come together on the "3rd Friday in June" every year during the National Day of Reconciliation and Healing from the Legacy of Enslavement and celebrate as a nation the end of slavery on the "3rd Saturday in June" through the observance of Juneteenth Independence Day in America.

Juneteenth is America’s 2nd Independence Day celebration. 29 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or state holiday observance, as well as the Congress of the United States.

Together we will see Juneteenth become a national holiday in America!

Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D.
Founder & Chairman
National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign
National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council (NJCLC)
National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF)