By Derryn Moten
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, 1865 became known as Juneteenth, the oldest annual Black freedom celebration in the United States.
President Abraham Lincoln, martyred by an assassin’s bullet in April 1865, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years, five months, and 18 days before Granger’s announcement. Issued as a war measure, the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863 and, at least symbolically, changed the legal status of all bondwomen and bondmen. But it applied only to the Confederate States that were at war against the United States. The Proclamation did not apply to Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland or Missouri, border states that continued to enslave African Americans until years later.
President Lincoln was asked if he thought God was on his side, to which he replied that he hoped God was on his side but “I must have Kentucky.” That, perhaps, explains why the Emancipation Proclamation did not cover a number of areas in the South, including 13 parishes in Louisiana, 48 counties in Virginia that would become the state of West Virginia, and the western counties in Tennessee. It also was further evidence of what Lincoln stated in a letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to preserve the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery.”
While the Emancipation Proclamation broadened the goals of the Civil War to include the abolition of slavery, that objective was not fully accomplished until the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Ratified at the end of 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude—except as punishment for a crime. That exception clause removed the protection that kept prisoners from being forced to work involuntarily, which is epitomized by chain gangs, peonage laborers and convict lease prisoners. The 13th Amendment exception clause, some argued, helped create the mass incarceration of people of color that continues today. However, the Black Codes, Eugenics, and Scientific Racism were the more likely culprits.
Human equality is a self-evident truth, and liberty—freedom—is an unalienable right. Black folks believed this long before Major General Granger arrived in Galveston to declare them free. That belief and the hope for freedom is what has sustained and energized generations of Black people.
Some 155 years have passed since the first Juneteenth, and African Americans continue to struggle for true freedom and for full and equal protection under the law. We are still living with the effects of the dreadful legacy of 250 years of slavery and another 100 years of Jim Crow laws. In many ways, we have been unmasked—as a nation—by COVID-19. The virus has exposed and exacerbated long-standing inequities, particularly in economics and healthcare. We see it in the disproportionate infection and death rates from the virus and in the fight for fair wages for Black essential workers. And we see it in the all too frequent murder of Black people by the police and vigilantes. This country’s flaws and painful history are being revealed in plain sight. This moment is an opportunity to face the truth, acknowledge our domestic shortcomings and do the work in our hearts, minds and spirits to do better.
In his Black Reconstruction, W. E. B. Du Bois writes, “Public education for all at the public’s expense, was in the South, a Negro idea.” Freedom meant economic and personal security, public education and unencumbered voting. Freedwomen and Freedmen knew better than most that land ownership is the foundation of wealth. They asked the U.S. government for land—land to farm, land to live on and land to deed to their heirs.
On this Juneteenth, we must use this moment to face the truth, to affirm that Black Lives Matter and to renew our commitment to ending systemic racism in America. We must use this moment to continue our fight for greater investments in our public institutions and programs that support and uplift people of color and other marginalized communities.
We must use this moment to commit ourselves to protecting voting rights for all citizens, and then mobilizing to elect leaders at the national, state and local levels who will help to ensure that America is truly the land of the free.
Commemorate Juneteenth through Action!
Join the Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington on June 20.
Stand up and be counted in the 2020 Census.
Register to participate in voter registration efforts planned for National Voter Registration Day.
Derryn Moten, PhD, is a professor and chair of the department of history and political science at Alabama State University, co-president of the Alabama State University Faculty-Staff Alliance and a vice president of the Alabama AFL-CIO. He also serves as acting chair of AFT’s Higher Education Program & Policy Council and is a member of the Civil and Human Rights Committee.