Remembering Juneteenth

“There will be no reversal of the process of emancipation and integration begun by Lincoln and now rightly required by the Supreme Court.”
Sargent Shriver |New York, NY| October 20, 1975

Our Quote of the Week helps us mark Juneteenth with a declaration that in the US, the movement towards racial justice must keep moving forward. While Juneteenth is a day of celebration, it also reminds us of the cruelty and injustice of slavery, and of the long road we still have to achieving racial equity.

While on the campaign trail during his Presidential run in 1975-76, Sargent Shriver made a speech about busing at Cooper Union in New York. Although the speech is almost 46 years old, the issues about racial justice and education that Sargent Shriver raises, continue to be critical. In the speech, He reminds the audience:

“Behind everything there is still the sin and curse of slavery, and the fact that for black Americans, the way up through hard work and education was closed in the South by force of law, closed by government policies that combined with private action to create racial ghettos and urban decay.”

While Shriver’s language is rooted in the time (e.g., we wouldn’t typically use the term “ghettos” in this way today), his observation points to a fundamental truth about the history of our country: that the legacy of slavery continues to shape our systems -- and prevents Black Americans from enjoying the “unalienable rights” outlined in the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

As a remembrance of the day when, on June 19, 1865, the last formerly enslaved people were informed that slavery had been abolished, Juneteenth brought us much closer to a universal “independence day” than July 4, 1776 had. However, it is also a bittersweet day, both because it reminds us that there were people still suffering under the system of slavery after the moment of emancipation (which occurred over two years earlier in January 1963), and because those who had been enslaved were “freed” by and large into an agrarian society without any land or reasonable opportunities, and in a place where the power structure continued to be dominated by racist ideas.

We’re in a critical moment in our history. Our collective awareness of racial injustice has increased in the past year. This is due in part due to the pandemic (as we’ve seen that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, both in terms of health outcomes and economically), and in part because of our collective experience of witnessing racial violence, most notably with the police killing of George Floyd. And yet, we see many efforts to block or reverse “the process of emancipation and integration”, by everything from the prevention of the teaching of the reality of slavery in US schools to the passing of laws to make voting more difficult, a practice that has typically made it harder for Black Americans to cast their ballots.

Let us commit to doing all we can to ensure that we move swiftly and decisively towards a society where we are all emancipated and able to fulfill the promise of our founding documents: the exercising of our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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