Juneteenth and the end of slavery

All Out for People’s Empowerment! End the Injustice NOW! | Dougal MacDonald

107th Coloured Troops, Ft. Woodbury, Arlington County, Virginia, November 1, 1865.

June 19, 1865 or Juneteenth (also known as Freedom Day) is celebrated across the United States in appreciation of the vital contributions made by African Americans in emancipating the four million people enslaved by the system of slave labour and in carrying forward the fight for justice and equality before and since the U.S. Civil War. Recent actions across the U.S. salute the determined and undaunted resistance to police violence, government impunity, and demands for accountability and for change that favours the people.

June 19, 1865 was the day when all the people still enslaved at the end of the Civil War gained their freedom. While hundreds of thousands of those enslaved fought in the Civil War to end the system of slave labour, many remained in bondage even after the war ended, such as in Texas, until Union soldiers arrived in Galveston on June 19, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, to tell everyone that all those enslaved had won their freedom. Celebrations immediately broke out and Juneteenth has been celebrated in states south and north, east and west with a resurgence and broadening of events during the 1960s and since.

Black people played a decisive role in winning their emancipation and defeating the slave owners. They carried out numerous mass insurrectionary movements on the plantations before and during the war. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx long advocated bringing Black people south and north into the Army but President Lincoln initially refused. Those enslaved organized mass actions to escape the plantations and reach Union lines, joining the fight in various ways. In 1862, even before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Black people formed their own armed militias to battle enslavement in Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and South Carolina – regiments later integrated into the Union Army. The “U.S. Coloured Troops” were officially formed in the spring of 1863 which brought more than 180,000 people freed from enslavement and northern Black people into the Army. Another 29,000 served in the Navy and many more joined the fight by securing supplies, undermining plantations, providing information and so forth. Black soldiers participated in about 200 battles of the war and were known for their courage and fighting abilities, their lives sacrificed at a rate 35 per cent higher than other troops.

The millions of people who won liberation from enslavement faced a huge social challenge. People literally had to rebuild their lives from the ground up, including rejecting names given by the slave masters and adopting new ones. They owned no property, no homes, no land, no farm animals, no implements and few clothes. They were largely illiterate as it was a crime to teach those enslaved to read and write. For many, their lives had been restricted to the plantations they worked on and perhaps to surrounding ones. They had been largely excluded from political life, but had organized resistance through churches, song and the Underground Railroad. Given this, their progress right after the war was extraordinary. They militantly faced the opposition of the still powerful former slave owners who wanted to keep them in bondage and exploit them. This included their resistance to white supremacist terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan (1865), formed to split the working class, spread terror and maintain the people in thrall.

A school at the Freedmen’s Village in Arlington, Virginia, providing education for African American children and adults who escaped enslavement in Confederate states, 1862.

Liberation of the millions of enslaved people and defeat of the system of slave labour gave rise to major battles for democracy during the Reconstruction period of 1865-1877. People formerly enslaved alongside poor farmers, including many women, joined in demanding representation in their interests, the right to be equal members of the polity, including voting rights. Whole communities were built and debates on state constitutions raged as people came forward south and north to advance the fight for democracy unleashed by the defeat of the system of slave labour. A better future was fought for. But as W.E.B. Dubois put it, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Former slave owners, commonly Democrats, gradually regained power in Southern legislatures with assistance from the federal government, the formation of the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans, and through terrorism, violence, disruption, outright voter fraud, and other forms of intimidation. In 1876, the presidential election was disputed and a compromise was necessary to preserve the union. Samuel Tilden had won the popular vote but Electoral College votes were in dispute. In 1877 Congress arranged the compromise, with troops withdrawn from the south and former slave owners permitted to regain their plantations while Rutherford B. Hayes was selected for president. White Democrats now held political power in every Southern state and they swiftly turned back the clock using the KKK, mass arrests and legislating “Jim Crow” and other laws, officially segregating Black people and forcing many back on the plantations as sharecroppers. By 1905, nearly all Black men were effectively disenfranchised by state legislatures in every Southern state, with federal government support.

March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Almost 90 years later, Jim Crow laws, lynching and KKK terrorism remained widespread until the mass movements of the 1950s and ’60s which achieved desegregation in many respects and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But KKK violence remained and other forms of inequality and genocide took place, such as mass incarceration. From Jim Crow to the present day, Black people have continued to fight for their rights through their organizations, in the law courts, in legislatures and other government bodies, through the arts, socially active churches, mass protests and through armed self-defence against the racist violence of the state and its clandestine white supremacist organizations. To give one example, in June 1961 in Monroe, North Carolina, Black leader Robert F. Williams and his allies organized armed self-defence against the Ku Klux Klan who wanted to prevent desegregation of a swimming pool. Williams was forced into exile by the U.S. government until 1969. He later explained: “I advocated violent self-defence because I don’t really think you can have a defence against violent racists and against terrorists unless you are prepared to meet violence with violence, and my policy was to meet violence with violence.” The Black Panthers and Malcolm X also called for armed self-defence.

A key issue regarding the criminal legacy of slavery is the demand for reparations. Many recognize that the inequalities faced by Black people in the U.S. today are directly attributable to slavery and continued state-sanctioned discrimination. Some suggest history would have been different if the federal government had followed through on the legislation and promises of Reconstruction for land and defended the political power fought for by poor whites and Blacks, men and women alike. As it does today, at that time the federal government acted to block democracy by disempowering the people. This occurred in part by allowing former slave owners to reclaim their land, which was supposed to be given to people formerly enslaved and by organizing decades of state-sanctioned oppression and violence. While some cases for slavery reparations have been won at local levels, such as Georgetown University, the demand is for a federal reparations law addressing not only compensation for individuals but collectives and communities as well. Reparations and a formal apology for the perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on the African peoples who were enslaved and their descendants is the just demand of today.

In the face of the growing demand for reparations, in 2019 on Juneteenth the United States House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing with the stated purpose “to examine, through open and constructive discourse, the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.” Since Washington and Jefferson and sixteen other U.S. presidents owned slaves, and since some of the richest families in the U.S. such as the Cabots profited handsomely from the slave trade, much of the talk has been highly hypocritical. Various African American organizations have been fighting on the issue, including holding town hall meetings. As well, the issue has been taken to the UN. In 2016 the UN called on the U.S. to pay reparations for slavery. Its report brought out that “compensation is necessary to combat the disadvantages caused by 245 years of legally allowing the sale of people based on the colour of their skin.”

One part of the current resistance is the tearing down of symbols and statues glorifying slavery and commemorating slave traders and owners. For example, the statue of slave owner Philip Schuyler was removed from outside Albany City Hall. Statues of various Confederate leaders have also been removed due to their connection with slavery, for example, a Confederate memorial statue was removed in Portsmouth, Virginia. There are also calls for new statues to be raised in their place to celebrate those who fought against slavery rather than those who enriched themselves from it.

Sign at Juneteenth car caravan in Oakland, California, June 19, 2020.

Across the U.S., actions that started on May 26, 2020 to demand justice for the police killing of George Floyd continue, as organized resistance emerges to take its place. In Minneapolis where Floyd was killed and across the country, calls for justice in numerous cases of police brutality and killings, especially of African Americans, ring out. Calls also demand profound changes to policing that will not permit the people to be victimized by a militarized force that does not represent their interests. It is no coincidence that the police forces in the South were first created to protect the system of slave labour, such as slave patrols to catch those who had escaped their enslavement.

Juneteenth is being celebrated by saluting these many actions and demanding that all the continuing remnants of slavery, in the form of broad inequality faced by African Americans on all fronts and police violence and mass incarceration be eliminated. People of all nationalities and backgrounds together continue to affirm their convictions for new arrangements and their own empowerment, through protests as well as other forms of resistance.

(Photos: New York Public Library, U.S. National Archives)

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