By LaKeshia N. Myers
The late Coretta Scott King once said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation.” As an African American, I know this to be true. When I reflect on the significance of Juneteenth and us as a people, having only been legitimately free—totally unencumbered—since 1965, I can say with confidence, “I’m proud of us and we are doing okay”. But we must remember, freedom for African Americans is and always has been fragile.
Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order, which meant it held no political weight if Lincoln were no longer in office. Furthermore, the proclamation only freed enslaved people who were living in states that had seceded from the union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware and the territory of West Virginia. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory.
Juneteenth itself, the announcement of emancipation by General Granger on Galveston Island, would not be codified until the passage of the thirteenth amendment on January 31, 1865, three full years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued (for Blacks enslaved by Native American tribes, freedom would come as late as 1866). The thirteenth amendment guaranteed formerly enslaved people freedom from forced labor only; the law did not recognize us as citizens or grant us equal protection.
It would not be until the fourteenth amendment was passed in 1866 that African Americans were granted citizenship and protection under the law. Even with citizenship, the Black community was “othered” because we could not vote. Voting rights were extended to Black men following the passage of the fifteenth amendment in 1869; even with white women being granted the right to vote in 1920, most Black women would remain disenfranchised until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
As we dealt with the abrupt end of Reconstruction and entered the Jim Crow Era, it was through staunch activism and policy that we were able to retain our freedom. As we reflect on this Juneteenth holiday, I hope we take stock of the fact that we are embattled in yet another fight for our collective freedom. As politicians in states continue to create laws that restrict access to the ballot box, remove voters from the voter rolls, sabotage election results, and restrict access to affordable reproductive and general health care, we must understand our freedom is under siege.
James Baldwin once said, “freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.” There is nothing more important than our freedom, let us march on ‘til victory is won…again.