I first learned about Juneteenth several years ago, when our friends at New Progressive Baptist Church in Kingston invited the WJC to join them for their annual Juneteenth celebration. The celebrations of Juneteenth have grown in recent years, but now this date has rocketed to nationwide prominence, and merits our full attention.
Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865. Even though President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, that announcement did not automatically free the slaves. More than two years of bloody battles were needed until the Confederacy finally surrendered and the Emancipation Proclamation was actually implemented. Even then, it took two more months until Union forces reached Texas, the last slave state to receive the news. It was there on June 19, 1865 that General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas and announced that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free.
The battle to overcome the oppression of African Americans and to eliminate and transcend the ideology of white supremacy that enforces that oppression is in many crucial ways the history of the United States of America. That racism was encoded into our Constitution in 1789 when slavery was not mentioned, but slaves were considered to be only 3/5ths of a person. The Civil War 70 years later was a direct result of that original injustice, and tore our nation in two. But as we know, the end of slavery did not end racism. The economic and social forces of white supremacy perennially reassert themselves. I am struck that even though the last slave was liberated on June 19, 1865, it would not be until a full century had passed that the Voting Rights Act would become the law of the land on August 6, 1965. So many Black lives bent over, stymied, harassed, beaten and lynched in that century of struggle. But of course, the struggle was not over. The proponents of racism once again regrouped. Black men especially were arrested and incarcerated in record numbers. Police forces, rather than serving and protecting their communities, militarized themselves and continued to regularly beat and murder Black people in their towns and cities. The “War on Drugs” gave cover to the systematic disenfranchisement of Black communities. Forty eight years after the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act, on June 25, 2013, the US Supreme Court effectively gutted the law with their 5-4 decision that systematic efforts to suppress the Black vote had ended and that therefore the protections of the Voting Rights Act were no longer relevant. Racist state legislatures shamelessly rushed once again to suppress the votes of their Black citizens.
And now here we are, at another critical inflection point in this struggle for equality and dignity that is as old as our nation. The sickening sight of white police officer Derek Chauvin impassively kneeling on the black neck of George Floyd for almost 9 minutes, ignoring George Floyd’s pleas until the life drained out from him, has sparked a moment of awakening in our nation. This is not a moment to stand idly by. This is a moment to pay full attention. This is a moment to educate ourselves about the full history of racism. This is a moment to take action. This is a moment to be on the right side of history.
This past Tuesday evening I listened to a panel of Black Baptist ministers discussing Black Lives Matter. (My colleague Rev. G. Modele Clarke was one of the panelists, which is how I learned about it.) I was struck by the Biblical text that they kept returning to in their conversation: it was the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The dynamics of oppression depicted there are forever accurate. The Hebrew slaves are the economic engine of Pharaoh’s wealth and power. Why would he ever want to free them? Only when pressed against the wall by the plagues does Pharaoh float possible concessions; he then retracts his word when each danger passes. Finally, in grief after his own son dies, Pharaoh lets the people go. A giant step toward freedom! But then, regretting his magnanimity, Pharaoh mounts his chariots and pursues the Hebrews to the shores of the Red Sea. Those who hold the wealth and the power do not give it up willingly, and will always look for ways to reassert their control. In my thumbnail review of American history that I shared with you above, the forces of White supremacy are Pharaoh, make no mistake. The African Americans are the Hebrew slaves. As Jews, it should be clear to us which side we are on.