Juneteenth ‘conversation’ inspires memory, hope and commitment

On June 19, 1865—a full 71 days after the Civil War ended—Major General Gordon Granger reached Galveston, Texas, to announce General Order No. 3, which declared “all slaves are free.” Liberation had finally reached the shores of Texas. June 19 became known as Juneteenth, the oldest annual Black freedom celebration in the United States.


Dr. Derryn E. Moten
Juneteenth Reminds Us That the Fight for True Liberty Continues
AFT News, June 2020


On June 15, the AFT Black Staff Caucus and the union’s Coffee, Tea, and Conversation group hosted a discussion with historian and AFT leader Dr. Derryn E. Moten, Juneteenth: Masks Off—Revealing, Returning, and Reconstruction of the American Culture of Black Americans.

Dr. Derryn Moten
Dr. Moten is a professor of history and the chair of the history and political science department at Alabama State University. He is also a staunch union activist: A 25-year AFT member, vice chair of the AFT Higher Education policy and planning council, vice president for the Alabama AFL-CIO and co-president of the Alabama State University Faculty-Staff Alliance.

Centered on Juneteenth’s powerful, evergreen relevance to the struggle for racial justice in America, the event was opened by AFT President Randi Weingarten and moderated by Delisa Saunders, deputy director of the AFT Human Rights and Community Relations Department. The message: Juneteenth calls us to action—to recommit to the work of building awareness and fighting racism.

‘We don’t know the history as well as we think we do.’

As historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. recounts in his compelling essay on the origins of Juneteenth, other dates were contenders for this yearly commemoration—for example, Sept. 22, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln preliminarily issued the Emancipation Proclamation, or Jan. 1, 1865, when it took effect. But, as Gates Jr. and Dr. Moten both point out, the proclamation didn’t actually achieve freedom for all enslaved Americans.

Dr. Moten said, “When I was in grade school, we were taught that Lincoln freed the slaves. Technically, that is not true. It’s really important to understand that the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in those states in rebellion against the Union. We don’t know the history as well as we should or as well as we think we do.”

The proclamation did not apply to enslaved people in the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri—or several areas in the South, including the 48 counties in Virginia that became the state of West Virginia, thus leaving approximately 500,000 enslaved people in bondage. Why? Border states’ continued allegiance was crucial for a Union victory. Dr. Moten cited Lincoln’s famous comment, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

Texas specifically has deep significance. Dr. Moten said, “Pro-slavery proponents were always interested in the expansion of enslavement, including expanding slavery West. Texas was one of the places where that expansion took place.” Major Granger’s announcement on that June day in 1865 marked a milestone in abolition (followed six months later by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery throughout the United States).

‘The poisonous roots of white supremacy’

As Dr. Moten, Saunders and Weingarten expressed, understanding the deeper history of Juneteenth is just a first step. Even more important is perceiving and addressing what Weingarten called “the poisonous roots of white supremacy that run so deep in this country. … We need to make sure we understand that history and don’t ignore it or whitewash it.”

Saunders noted that “Juneteenth is a celebration of the power and strength of the human spirit. But as we prepare to celebrate it, we must face the true persistent virus in our country: the role of white supremacy.”

Dr. Moten said, “The whole history of Juneteenth is about the degradation of enslavement, the centuries it existed, and the numerous compromises the federal government made” around its expansion and perpetuation.

A key aspect of this history, Dr. Moten said, is that “the institution of slavery made people wealthy beyond their wildest imagination. … When I walked along the Battery in Charleston and saw those beautiful houses, … those folks were able to live as well as they did based on African American slavery. … When you travel to Montgomery, Mobile, Richmond, Savannah, you can see the wealth that slavery produced.”

‘A moral obligation’

Weingarten observed that, while last year’s Juneteenth conversation focused on the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this year’s was about carrying the fight forward. She said, “We’ve all gone on quite a journey this year, and it’s made us the better. … We as a union really have to take on [advocating for] the teaching of [the history of] racism and how all of us become anti-racist. It’s a moral obligation for members and leaders alike.”

Dr. Moten said: “We have to recognize that white supremacy and white racism is alive and well in the U.S. If we had any doubt, witness the numerous bills suppressing the right to vote making their way through state legislatures. There is a continual effort to keep one group of people in power. We have to call it by its name. We can’t be mealy-mouthed about this.”

He added, “White supremacy doesn’t only mean people putting hoods over their heads and draping themselves in sheets and burning crosses. It’s at all levels. The effort in this country to disenfranchise voters is white supremacy. The criminal justice system is white supremacy. … Segregated public education is girded in that history. White supremacy is not just young men [per an August 2017 incident at the University of Virginia] parading around statues of Thomas Jefferson with tiki torches. It’s nuanced.”

Saunders voiced that for many Black Americans today, segregation permeated their childhoods: “I was born and raised in Richmond, Va. My mom was born in 1929 and raised in Meridian, Miss., where she had been so conditioned to not be able to use the public library that our taxes paid for, that when we were finally able to, in Richmond around 1965, she did not go in. It’s always been my dad who pushed boundaries, spoke up and raised hell. He walked us in there, role modeled how to behave, helped us check out books and graciously left.”

The pursuit of justice

Weingarten called Juneteenth “a time for being engaged together in celebration, fellowship and the pursuit of justice.”

Saunders asked Dr. Moten, “What can the AFT as a family do for advancing justice?”

Dr. Moten said, “We need to continue what we’re already doing. [The AFT] speaks to a lot of conundrums in this country: minimum wage, affordable healthcare, a good public education for every child. Those are just three things that immediately come to mind. There is a long, proud tradition in this country for labor unions, and we have to speak up about that long tradition. It’s hard to imagine the advances we’ve made in this country toward equity without labor unions.”

(The AFT has a long history of civil rights advocacy, detailed in an AFL-CIO blog by Kenneth Quinnell. The AFT was one of the first educational organizations to allow Black members. The AFT filed an amicus curiae brief in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, and in 1957 expelled locals that had not followed an earlier mandate to desegregate. During the 1960s, the AFT ran more than 20 Freedom Schools in the South, and actively supported the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. See Quinnell’s excellent article for more on the AFT’s continued championship of civil rights in recent decades.)

Education as transformation

Saunders and Dr. Moten explored the vital role of education in promoting the historical and social awareness and thirst for justice that Weingarten dubs “racial literacy.”

Dr. Moten said, “We’ve got to unpack this history. There are school districts across the South [considering] what can be told [about the history of slavery and racism]. But I think that, presented the right way, that kids can handle it, and can handle it better than their parents.”

Education matters, Dr. Moten pointed out. “I think of the young man [shooter Dylann Roof] who killed all those people at Emanuel AME Church [in Charleston, June 2015]. He was asked why he did it, and he said, ‘I have to do this because y’all raping our women.’ That’s something I’d expect someone to say 60 years ago. There’s a lot of ignorance out there.”

Saunders observed that some Americans want to engage with our nation’s racial history, while others “feel disconnected, like it doesn’t apply to them.” Dr. Moten responded, “I think it’s a process. … You can’t drag people along, but you have to encourage them to deal with the pain and anguish. Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy [a clarion call to end mass incarceration and an indictment of the death penalty as “a direct descendant of lynching”] is so difficult to read. People tell me, ‘I cried constantly while reading the book.’ And I say, if you don’t cry, you have to check your pulse.’ If people are unsure of this history, pick up a book and read.”

AFT’s new campaign to stamp out racism

On June 17, the AFT launched the “Stamping Out Racism and Hate” campaign, to support educators building culturally responsive and inclusive communities for students. Powered by partners including the NAACP and First Book, the campaign kicked off with the distribution of free copies of the AFT’s special edition of the book Stamped to NAACP youth councils and advisors at their national convention in July. (This edition is a chapter book version of Ibram X. Kendi’s groundbreaking bestseller on the history of racism and anti-racism in America, co-written with Jason Reynolds for a relatable remix.) The campaign also features Share My Lesson’s new Stamping Out Racism and Hate community page, free classroom collection giveaways and the distribution of First Book’s Empowering Educators resources during the AFT’s TEACH conference in July. It will continue with events throughout the year.

Stamping Out Racism and Hate promo picture

“As educators, we have a key role in bringing people together and teaching tolerance, overcoming divisions and working toward justice and equality,” said Weingarten.

Defying the darkness of racism

Saunders and Dr. Moten see this moment as an opportunity. Saunders said, “I’m finding that there’s a lot of hope right now. A lot of sharing. Even the polls are showing that attitudes along the racial fault line have shifted.”

Saunders cited polling trends that show increasing agreement among Americans in recent years that anti-black discrimination is a widespread, serious issue in our country. As political scientist Michael Tesler writes, “After decades of stagnation, white racial attitudes started to shift after the first wave of [Black Lives Matter] protests in 2014.” An example mentioned by Saunders: A June 2020 Monmouth University poll in which 76 percent of respondents said racial discrimination is a big problem in the United States (a 25-point jump from 2015).

Dr. Moten said, “I tell my students, we don’t have to be Dr. King Jr. or Mother Teresa. There’s a lot we all can do.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s reflection on Juneteenth ends on a similar note of hope and redemption:

“Of all Emancipation Day observances, Juneteenth falls closest to the summer solstice, … the longest day of the year, when the sun, at its zenith, defies the darkness in every state, including those once shadowed by slavery. By choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched, … we remember the shining promise of emancipation, along with the bloody path America took by delaying it. … My hope this Juneteenth is that we never forget it.”

[Christina Bartolomeo]

The Juneteenth webinar was part of the AFT Black Staff Caucus “Freedom Series,” dedicated to amplifying community through professional support and shared expertise, serving as an instrument of change. For more information on this event or additional resources, visit https://sway.office.com/oh0J8reuErzp9H0g?ref=Link.