From the Supervisory Committee For Recruiting Colored Regiments, Wikimedia, Public Domain
Today, as we commemorate Juneteenth – together with Father’s Day — at picnics, barbecues, festivals, concerts and family events across the San Francisco Bay Area and the nation, our celebration is infused with a deep appreciation of human freedom, and the power and resilience of Black Americans, and the intimate relationship of joyful liberation, unrelieved mourning and anger, intense pain, and fierce determination.
“Fling out your banners, your honors be bringing,
Raise to the ether your paeans of praise.
Strike every chord and let music be ringing!
Celebrate freely this day of all days…”
On this day of all days, we remember and retell the most important story in our country’s history, a story filled with deep human emotions: the living memory of tortures inflicted, and shackles released; enslavers empowered and defeated; and the bondage and emancipation of Black adults and children who had been deemed to be chattel, and violated without mercy, under the law of the whip and the law of the land.
On this day we have no choice but to face the fundamental dialectic of America’s racial history: “Ever since the birth of our nation, white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race,” wrote Dr. King. “She has been torn between selves – a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy.” Martin Luther King, Jr., “The White Backlash, Where do we go from here: chaos or community? (Beacon Press, 1967).
Getting down to the root
To appreciate this day, to savor its transformative power, we turn to those whose words captured and revealed the underlying truth of our nation’s history as it happened in real time:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In Congress, The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, July 4, 1776.
“We think [Black people] are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States… They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857); Justice TANEY for the majority.
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom. And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” President Abraham Lincoln, The Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863.
“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…” Union Army General Gordon Granger, “General Order Number 3,” Galveston Texas, June 19, 1865.
“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935).
“The South deluded itself with the illusion that the Negro was happy in his place; the North deluded itself with the illusion that it had freed the Negro. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slave, a legal entity, but it failed to free the Negro, a person.” Martin Luther King, Jr. notes in the margins of his copy of Charles Silberman, Crisis in Black and White, 1964, Papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, Georgia.
“We have already intimated that the bill of rights is a declaration of general principles for the government of a society of freemen, and not of convicted felons. [Forfeiture of these rights] is one of the penalties which the law denounces against a convicted felon, as much one of the penalties attached to his crime, as the whipping post, the iron mask, the gag, or the dungeon, which is provided for offences other than felonies. He is for the time being a slave, in a condition of penal servitude to the State, and subject to such laws and regulations as the State may choose to prescribe.” Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. 790, 21 Gratt. 790, Supreme Court of Virginia (1871)
“Certainly, the great record of forced labor across the South demands that any consideration of the progress of civil rights remedy in the United States must acknowledge that slavery, real slavery, didn’t end until 1945…. Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s grip on U.S. society – its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to millions of black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end – can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.” Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Anchor Books, 2008.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!”
Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again (1936)
“There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.” James Baldwin, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” Partisan Review, Fall 1956.
“One of the other things we did in order to conquer the country, physically speaking, was to enslave the Africans… We enslaved them because, in order to conquer the country, we had to have cheap labor. And the man who is now known as the American Negro, who is one of the oldest Americans, and only one who never wanted to come here, did the dirty work, hoed the cotton – in fact, it is not too much to say that without his presence, without that strong back, the American economy, the American nation, would have had a vast amount of trouble creating that capital of which we are now so proud, and to which we claim Negroes have never contributed anything …Anyway, it was the black man’s necessity, once he got here, to accept the cross: he had to survive, to manage somehow to outwit his Christian master; what he was really facing when he got here was the Bible and the gun. But I’m not complaining about that now, either. What is most terrible is that American white men are not prepared to believe my version of the story, to believe that it happened. In order to avoid believing that, they have set up in themselves a fantastic system of evasions, denials, and justifications, which system is about to destroy their grasp of reality, which is another way of saying their moral sense.” James Baldwin, “The White Problem,” 100 Years of Emancipation, edited by Robert A. Goodwin (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964).
“My parents moved to Sunflower County [Mississippi] when I was two years old . I remember, and I will never forget, one day – I was six years old  and I was playing beside the road and this plantation owner drove up to me and stopped and asked me “could I pick some cotton.” I told him I didn’t know, and he said, “Yes, you can. I will give you things that you want from the commissary store,’ and he named things like crackerjacks and sardines – it was a huge list that he called off. So I picked the 30 pounds of cotton that week, but I found out that what actually happened was he was trapping me into beginning the work I was to keep doing. And I never did get out of his debt again.” Fannie Lou Hamer, quoted in Jack O’Dell, “Life in Mississippi: An Interview with Fannie Lou Hamer,” Freedomways 5, no 2, Spring 1965.
“To feed us during the winter months mama would go ‘round from plantation to plantation and would ask landowners if she could have the cotton that had been left, which was called scrappin’ cotton. When they would tell her that we could have that cotton, we would walk for miles and miles in the run of the week. We wouldn’t have on shoes or anything because we didn’t have them. She would always tie our feet up with rags because the ground would be frozen real hard. We would walk from field to field until we had scrapped a bale of cotton. Then she’d take that bale of cotton and sell it and that would give us some of the food that we would need.” Fannie Lou Hamer, To Praise Our Bridges, KIPCO, 1967.
“In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning – getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.” Ella Baker, 1969, cited in Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina Press, 2003) and in Robert Moses and Charles Cobb, Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Beacon Press, 2002).
“As many advocates have pointed out, the distinction between survivors and perpetrators of violence is largely illusory, as virtually no one commits violence without first surviving it. Reflexively locking people in cages and subjecting them to degradation and humiliation – inflicting violence and suffering upon people in order to convince them that violence is wrong – is a doomed strategy… We must learn to care for one another across all boundaries and borders and build a movement of movements rooted in a love so fierce that when a Mexican child is ripped from the arms of his mother at the border, and when a black child is ripped from the arms of her mother as she’s arrested on the streets of New York, and when a white child is ripped from the arms of her mother in a courtroom in Oklahoma, we feel the same pain, the same agony, as though it were our own children.” Michelle Alexander, Preface to the Tenth Edition, The New Jim Crow (The New Press, 2020, 2020).
To redeem the soul of America
Facing this anguished and liberating history on this day of all days, many feelings emerge and mix together with our joy:
Immense sorrow and grief, for the untold millions who perished in the Middle Passage and in this American land, and for each person who suffered the unbearable violations of their humanity at the auction block and the lynching tree, in the cotton fields and the prison industrial complex, at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York;
Fear and rage, at the persistence of the white backlash in this country, the death grip of white supremacy, the emergence and spread Jim Crow voter disenfranchisement in new forms, the perversion, idolatry, and expansion of the Second Amendment, and the threat to the existence of our democracy from an increasingly fascist version of White Christian nationalism; and
A renewed determination to join millions of concerned citizens to help bring about the moral revolution of racial and economic justice and human rights, the movement of movements that Dr. King, Ella Baker, Michelle Alexander, and so many of our greatest heroes and martyrs called us to make, through the mobilization of disciplined, mass nonviolence.
Juneteenth is our Jubilee Day, our Freedom Day, our Emancipation Day.
Celebrating the emancipation of our country from the scourge and poison of chattel slavery and Jim Crow disenfranchisement, apartheid and terror — the satanic evil that corroded and rotted our nation’s soul from generation to generation — this day invigorates us with hope and faith.
The hope and faith that one day America’s soul will be redeemed, by our collective efforts across the divisions of race, across generations.
The hope and faith that a just America will be
The hope and faith that we shall overcome some day.
Jonathan D. Greenberg