Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Happy Juneteenth

Today’s celebration of Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States in 1865. It is also a reminder that what ended on paper has taken much longer to end in fact.

June 19, 1865, was the day toward the end of the Civil War when a Union general landed in Galveston and advised “the people of Texas” that “all slaves are free.” The general declared: “This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."

Abraham Lincoln actually issued his Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. He said as Commander in Chief that slaves were free in any of the Confederate States of America which did not return to Union control by January 1, 1863.

It was probably no accident that the wording was quite calculated, and not without some loopholes. The two and a half years it took for emancipation to become effective in Texas are often seen as emblematic of the nation’s half-hearted commitment to ending slavery.

Indeed, in 1862 the Republican leader in the House of Representatives saw emancipation primarily as a wartime tactic to disable the South’s economy. As originally framed, it did not free any slaves in the border states or any Southern states already under Union control. So it could not become effective in any Confederate state until the presence of Union troops made it so.

By July of 1865 nearly all of the estimated four million slaves had been freed. Slavery was finally abolished as an institution by ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on December 18, 1865. But official oppression continued for another hundred years—through Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and segregation—until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Houston Chronicle columnist Cragg Hines uses the occasion of Juneteenth to note that we still have work to do before we can be satisfied that the legacy of slavery has been overcome. He suggests that official apologies for slavery are a constructive way for the country to atone and perhaps begin a final chapter in the healing of our oldest national wound. He also notes some progress—in some surprising places.

Below is his column, originally available at

Why it's important to get the debate on slavery right

The approach of Juneteenth brings us again to an annual reminder of the nation's indelible sin of slavery.

Remarking on the "peculiar institution" and the continuing lack of national atonement seems, judging by the vein-popping e-mails that pour in when I write about the issue, to discomfit a lot of people.


A number suggest, as did a particularly tone-deaf white Virginia legislator amid consideration of an Old Dominion apology measure this year, that blacks "should get over it."

Just so you get the full picture, let's note that Delegate Frank D. Hargrove Sr., a suburban Republican, went on to ask in a newspaper interview: "Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?"

Yes, this debate regularly — if unintentionally — reveals how far some people have not come. It is clearly not time to "get over it" but to continue to examine the history of slavery, the diabolical role it played in our nation and its continuing manifestations.

But even among the continued outcroppings of hatefulness, there have been some achievements over the last year.

The most stunning development, at least in symbolic terms, was a resolution adopted by the Alabama Legislature expressing "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery "and its aftereffects" on the nation.

An apology, the resolution said, "cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help African-Americans and white citizens confront the ghosts of their collective pasts together."

In signing the resolution, Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, said: "I want the world to understand that Alabama has changed for the better."

Alabama was not the first state to act, but given its record — do we need to say anything more than "Selma"? — the action in the capitol in Montgomery seems the most notable. Even now, eight Republican state senators took the trouble to vote against the apology measure, and some GOP members in the House, where there was a voice vote, tried to demand a roll-call so that they could officially record their opposition.

The Alabama resolution observed that "the vestiges of slavery are ever before African-American citizens, from the overt racism of hate groups to the subtle racism" found in commerce, health care, education and law enforcement.

The legislatures of three other states in which slaves were held at the time of the Civil War — Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina — have also moved this year to adopt apologies.

It's a step that any state with a slave past could take.

With the 50th anniversary of Little Rock's Central High School integration crisis coming up later this year, an apology for slavery would certainly be the correct move for Arkansas.

Recent attempts by Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, to stymie an apology drive in Arkansas is virtually unfathomable.

Beebe is correct, as he told the Associated Press, that "race relations and the ability of people to get along is based upon deeds more than it is words," but that does not mean that the words should not be said.

The words should be said not only in slave states — including Texas — but nationally where chattel-like enslavement of men, women and children was commonplace for almost 150 years.

That history, as well as the rampant de jure segregation of "Jim Crow," is addressed in an apology resolution, H. Res. 194, that has been introduced by Rep. Stephen J. Cohen, D-Tenn.

The resolution speaks to the history of slavery and its lasting effects. It notes that while visiting the old slave-shipping port of Goree Island, Senegal, in 2003, President Bush correctly labeled the trade in humans as "one of the greatest crimes of history."

"A genuine apology," Cohen's resolution says, "is an important and necessary first step in the process of racial reconciliation."

When Bush visited the slave-shipping site off Dakar four years ago, he made an important point: "The spirit of Africans in America did not break. Yet the spirit of their captors was corrupted."

That corruption remains and can be heard loud and clear in the "get over it" sentiment that too many glibly express today.

1 comment:

DOC 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.

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