Our Quote of the Week recognizes the ongoing effects of systemic racism and oppression on African American communities, which have been disproportionally affected by poverty for generations. As we prepare to celebrate Juneteenth this coming weekend, we must also remember the legacy of slavery and the deeply-rooted injustices that persist in our institutions.
On August 3, 1966, Sargent Shriver addressed a predominantly African American audience of National Bar Association members. In the speech, Shriver focuses on Legal Services or “Justice for the Poor”, the War on Poverty program that provides free legal support to Americans living in poverty.
In the speech, Shriver quotes from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. In a section entitled, “On Crime and Punishment”, Gibran wrote:
“The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked. You cannot separate the just from the unjust, and the good from the wicked; For they stand together, before the face of the sun, even as the black thread and the white are woven together. And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also."
Shriver follows Gibran’s lead in the speech, using the image of a weaver needing to examine the whole cloth and even the loom as she weaves and a black thread breaks. He stresses the importance of examining entire systems when we see the effects of racial inequality on Black communities. And he reminds the audience of the role that law and justice play in addressing poverty and inequality:
“We're working for the day when a policeman, an official, a representative of law and order is not perceived as the enemy — as the source of danger and symbol of oppression. We have to alter — most basically — the perceptions of both children and adults. But we cannot alter perceptions unless we alter people's experiences.”
"Law enforcement isn’t enough. Law has to mean something more than 'be good,' 'behave yourself,' 'wait patiently,' and above all 'cool it.' The law may be impartial – but it cannot be neutral. The law must either be a friend and a protector – or it will be perceived as the enemy."
Today, we reflect on Sargent Shriver’s words as we remember Juneteenth (June 19, 1865), the day when the last formerly enslaved people in the United States were informed that slavery had been abolished. Juneteenth, it may be said, brought us 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 had 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, in a place where the power structure continued to be dominated by racist ideas. This history reminds us that although Juneteenth is a day of celebration, it did not erase the cruelty and injustice that slavery had inflicted, nor did it bring us to a point of reaching racial equity and equality.
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.
Don’t know where to start? Here are some ideas.