Juneteeth, finally official
Until recently, the true significance of Juneteenth was unknown to the vast majority of Americans. It wasn’t until last year’s momentous months of protest after George Floyd’s death when the outrage towards an unjust criminal justice system exploded onto a national scene of demonstrations and activism. The recognition of enormity of Juneteenth swept into the consciousness of Americans through the viral videos and news stories about the hundreds of celebrations around the country on June 19, 2020.
A part of the national conversation
What was once event an event that was primarily recognized by Black America has now become solidly placed in the psyche of the nation. When President Joe Biden signed a bill into law on June 16, 2021 designating Juneteenth as a national holiday the conversation about its importance changed in an instant.
With hundreds of Juneteenth events taking place on June 19 this year, people from all cultural backgrounds are participating in the celebration of the formal announcement in 1865 to enslaved African-Americans that they were now free. Almost two months after the Confederacy surrendered to the Union at the end of the Civil War, General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas to inform enslaved African-Americans that the Civil War had ended and that they were no longer slaves.
Since the 1870’s this day of freedom and emancipation has been honored in the Black community with parades, speeches, barbecues and other festivities. With the designation of the national holiday, the rest of the community will now join in the celebration.
Spreading the word
What does this mainstreaming of Juneteenth mean for the social justice movements like Black Lives Matter? And what does localized action look like in this world of rapidly shifting political perspectives?
“In a real sense, the Negro cannot be free in Pasadena or Los Angeles until the Negro is free in Jackson, Mississippi and Montgomery, Alabama. We are all involved in a single struggle.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., July 12, 1965, Friendship Baptist Church, Pasadena, CA
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Pasadena three times to speak about race and civil rights. Once to address students and faculty at Caltech in 1958, and then twice to speak at Friendship Baptist Church, which was founded by some of the city’s first African-American residents in 1893. He didn’t mince words about how even in the ‘enlightened’ state of California that segregation and racism still tormented civil society.
Just prior to his first visit to Friendship Baptist Church in 1960 an unnerving example of discrimination occurred in Altadena. During the evening of February 20 of that year, terrorists burned an 18-foot tall cross on the lawn and smashed a beer bottle on the front door of the home of a Black family on Olive Ave.
It is unclear whether or not King knew about this terrible event, nevertheless in his words to the congregation he stated clearly that one of the grave problems for Whites is to be overly concerned with maintaining “their preferred economic positions, their political power, their so-called way of life.”
Sixty years later there are still challenges for this nation to live up to its ideals of equality and justice, particularly when considering which race you identify with. By many estimates, African-American still struggle to achieve the economic success that freedom implied over 150 years ago. For example, currently average Black households have 1/10 the family wealth of average White households. Family wealth is extremely important when considering the ability to weather challenges like illness, loss of a job, economic downturns, etc. And without family wealth it is difficult to send children to college, buy a home, plan for retirement and to reach other aspects of the American middle class.
A time to think
Juneteenth is a moment of celebration, to be sure, but it is also a moment of reflection. A point to ponder what progress has been made and what remains. At the Juneteenth Freedom March and Block Party at Charles White Park in Altadena an atmosphere of gratitude mixed with agitation permeated the event. Altadena Town Council Member Dr. Sandra Thomas encouraged the crowd to use our common history as motivation to continue to fight to protect the civil rights of everyone in our society.
Former Black Panther Party members Hank Jones and Florence Zinzun (wife of Michael Zinzun) made an extraordinary statement by passing the legacy of the work of the BPP to My Tribe Rise co-founders Heavenly Hughes and Victor Hodgson. “We believe in you guys as we have been watching you and see that the passion and purpose is there,” said Ms. Zinzun about MTR. “There may be sleepless nights, but the two of you will continue to fight for and mobilize our community.”
For Heavenly and Victor that process is all about building community. To touch people by caring for them in authentic ways around basic needs. “When you are able to touch the heart through kindness, then you are able to move them to join the movement. And that is how we building community,” stated Heavenly.
Making it a holiday is only the start
The U.S. has a new national holiday, but what is needed now is the organization of a movement for the next generation to undertake in the battle against systemic racism. This movement must include everyone, not just those who are warriors for social justice. Everyone must see themselves as a part of the process of transformation. As Heavenly suggests, “To uplift and revitalize our people we need those at the top to reach down to bring up folks from the bottom. So when I hear from our White, Asian, and Latino colleagues who can see the truth and who then ask why there is such disparity between our races? Then I see what their gifts are, what their purpose is…and this is the foundation of the movement to come.”