Juneteenth

In 1865, the US Civil War came to a close when General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the unconditional surrender of General Robert E Lee and the army of the confederacy (Confederate States of America).  With that, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 now applied to all slaveholding territories.  Some two months later, the news reached Texas. The following description comes from the Handbook of Texas on line:

On June 19 (“Juneteenth”), 1865, Union general Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, thus belatedly bringing about the freeing of 250,000 slaves in Texas. The tidings of freedom reached slaves gradually as individual plantation owners read the proclamation to their bondsmen over the months following the end of the war. The news elicited an array of personal celebrations, some of which have been described in The Slave Narratives of Texas (1974).

There has been some controversy about why it took more than two years since the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect (Jan. 1, 1863) for the word to get to Texas.  Here is the way the Juneteenth History site describes this question:

Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another, is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or neither of these version could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question   For whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.

The name “Juneteenth” then celebrates the actual, final, de jure end of slavery in the United States.  The end of the war and the end of slavery initiated one of the most remarkable periods of American history: the period usually called “Reconstruction.”  I think it is important to recognize Reconstruction as an extension of the Civil War.  The political defeat of Reconstruction comes down to us as the betrayal of the hopes engendered by the Emancipation Proclamation, the military victory, and first Juneteenth celebrations.

Celebrations have become widespread throughout the United States — not simply in Texas — for two reasons.  First, the Texas celebrations became a matter of pride and accomplishment throughout the Southern Black population; and the migrations out of the South brought enclaves of Blacks to communities from Bakersfield to Bangor.  Second, Reconstruction may have been crushed,  but the drive for freedom could not be so easily quelled.  The celebrations of Juneteenth became a way to recover that celebration of accomplishment, the celebration of a battle for freedom. According to http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

Today, Juneteenth is enjoying a phenomenal growth rate within communities and organizations throughout the country. Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum and others have begun sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. In recent years, a number of local and national Juneteenth organizations have arisen to take their place along side older organizations – all with the mission to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture.
Juneteenth today, celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. As it takes on a more national, symbolic and even global perspective, the events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten, for all of the roots tie back to this fertile soil from which a national day of pride is growing

This year a number of significant events celebrating Juneteenth took place throughout the country.  Here is a link to one scientist’s musing on the meaning of Juneteenth in North Carolina: “What is the Juneteenth of which you speak?” Minneapolis, San Antonio, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Washington D.C. and many others hosted celebrations of what has become known as “African American Independence Day” — a substitute for July 4 at which “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” once known as the “Negro National Anthem,” was always sung. (It was sung at the 2008 presidential inauguration). Here is one among many Youtube versions of this stirring music, with Kim Weston singing to 100,000 people, introduced by a young Jesse Jackson.

In Chicago this year, Governor Pat Quinn took part in a Juneteenth celebration at Du Sable Museum, declaring the day Museum’s artist founder Margaret Burroughs day.  It was celebrated at Thompson Center.  Perhaps the most extensive celebration was in Marquette Park, where the music went on from 9 AM to 9 PM:

Chicagoans looking for something to do to celebrate Juneteenth were in for a treat with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s (IMAN) “Takin’ It to the Streets” free concert from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Marquette Park, located at 6734 S. Kedzie, had approximately 20,000 people; 200 vendors; 100 artists, including hip-hop guru Mos Def headlining the concert; four stages worth of entertainment; health summits; a prayer area; family-friendly games and rides all in one day.

This post is intended to do three things. First, at the time of the official Independence Day celebration, to recognize the limitation of that  celebration;  second, to explore some of the history that makes Juneteenth such an important date and to show how widespread are the celebrations;  and finally, to understand that under the current conditions commemorating Juneteenth, a celebration of the fight for freedom, assumes an even more important role as the dispossessed of all ethnicities see their economic human rights driven down.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” — Frederick Douglass

["What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?" This was Frederick Douglass' comment to gathering honoring the 76th anniversary of American independence (1852). Eight years before the Civil War and two years before "bloody Kansas," Douglass had already emerged as a leading abolitionist speaker. It's important to note that he spent the first part of his speech honoring the ideas and framers of the Declaration. But, he said, his task was to address the present. We can honor the spirit of the Declaration today; but let's also address the present.
In Douglass' time, the issue that roiled American politics was slavery and the growing effort of the South to maintain control over the political state.  Once the Civil War broke out, Karl Marx estimated that freeing the slaves would unleash a gigantic labor movement. In fact, the first national labor union emerged shortly after the end of the Civil War, and the defeat of Reconstruction coincided with the first national strike.  It is not fanciful thinking to believe that the Hayes-Tilden agreement that marked the end of the Reconstruction period allowed Wall Street to consolidate power over the re-entrenched planter class in order to turn its attention (in part) to the growing labor movement.  Union generals assigned to guarantee free slaves' rights were withdrawn from their garrisons in the South, along with their regiments, to northern labor targets, especially Chicago and Pennsylvania, and to fight the indigenous peoples of the West.
In our time we are facing another shift.  Then it was a shift to industry from agriculture.  Now it is a shift from industry to robotics/electronics.  The consequence of this shift is the creation of a class of android workers who produce cheaply but do not purchase or eat, and a dispossessed class of unemployed or partially employed humans who can't afford to purchase.  Under the commodity producing societies of the past, if you can't buy, you are not worthy.  But a society which produces an abundance cheaply, but can't distribute it needs to be reorganized.  The new mode of production demands distribution according to need.
On this fourth of July, let's consider, remember and revere the ideas of the founders, without losing sight of the changed conditions and the need to achieve the new goals of a cooperative society!    --  Lew Rosenbaum]

The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro

by Frederick Douglass

A speech given at Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852

Frederick Douglass

Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens:

He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.

The papers and placards say that I am to deliver a Fourth of July Oration. This certainly sounds large, and out of the common way, for me. It is true that I have often had the privilege to speak in this beautiful Hall, and to address many who now honor me with their presence. But neither their familiar faces, nor the perfect gage I think I have of Corinthian Hall seems to free me from embarrassment.

The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable-and the difficulties to he overcome in getting from the latter to the former are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence I will proceed to lay them before you.

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, as what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old.  Click here to read the entire address:

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