Juneteenth, symbol and reality

Photo: Tasha Jolley, Unsplash. Photo: Tasha Jolley, Unsplash.

On June 17, President Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday. Many of us have some catching up to do — to understand what Juneteenth is. What does this new holiday mean for Black people, for all Americans and for Anabaptist Christians?

Juneteenth has its roots in Texas, where I grew up. Years ago, I knew what it was, but we didn’t celebrate it, and I never fully understood its significance.

Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when Gen. Gordon Granger delivered the announcement of freedom to slaves in Texas. Though the Emancipation Proclamation had been in effect since 1863, it took until the summer of 1865 — a couple of months after the end of the Civil War — for the word of freedom to reach Galveston, Texas.

Juneteeth represents liberation and deliverance from bondage. Making it a federal holiday honors the perseverance of Black people. It ensures that future generations will remember and honor their struggle.

I wish Juneteenth had been a holiday when I was growing up. As a Black Texan, it would have increased my appreciation of my own history. It would have been empowering to know others were paying attention to that history too.

Juneteenth also points out the glaring reality that we still have far to go. I cannot celebrate Juneteenth without thinking about the lives of those who survived enslavement — and the fact that their dreams of freedom were not fulfilled.

When Black folks asked for equality, they received instead a different form of slavery. For many decades after the Civil War, a racist culture — sharecropping, segregation, white supremacist terrorism, Jim Crow laws, the prison system — kept Black people from truly tasting freedom.

Thus Juneteenth is not only a celebration of liberation. It is the mourning of past and present realities. It calls attention to the need to continue to push forward toward freedom for all people.

For years, Black people have called for reparations, fair representation, equal opportunity and safer communities. Instead, we get a federal holiday.

This is not to diminish the day but to observe the difference between symbolic gestures and tangible changes.

When we celebrate Juneteenth, we must remember the work still to do. I believe that the church — including Anabaptist Christians — can lead the way in doing this work.

We must acknowledge the role that the American church has played in the oppression of Black people.

We must believe that Christians can make changes and lead toward justice.

We must believe our Anabaptist churches can make an impact, because it is in our doctrine to work for peace and justice.

In Nehemiah 5 we see an example of reparations. The nobles and officials had stolen land from the people in the midst of a famine. The people complained to Nehemiah, and he brought together the nobles and officials and demanded they give back what they had stolen with interest.

Nehemiah made the nobles and officials promise to give back everything, and they agreed. But even after receiving their promise, Nehemiah reinforced the order with a threat. He applied pressure: “So may God shake out everyone from house and from property who does not perform this promise. Thus, may they be shaken out and emptied” (Nehemiah 5:13). What was stolen was promptly returned.

Nehemiah shows us the proper response to oppression. Repentance and reparations are necessary to make things right. Black people have called for change and reparations. We have been met, for the most part, with symbolic gestures.

Though I am happy about the Juneteenth holiday, I cannot help but be suspicious of tactics to pacify those who seek justice. Christians must continue to apply pressure to those in power.
We cannot be satisfied with holidays that remind us of the history of the struggle between Black people and white people in America or that perpetuate a myth that the battle for justice was won a long time ago.

Juneteenth shows the importance of continuing to struggle, but now as allies against common enemies of racism and injustice.

I hope and pray that as the United States comes to grips with the harm that has been done and is being done to Black people, Anabaptists can lead by example toward real, not just symbolic, change.

Jerrell Williams

Jerrell Williams is pastor of Salem (Ore. Read More

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