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Happy Juneteenth

On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed into law the establishment of our newest federal holiday- Juneteenth National Independence Day, to be celebrated on June 19th each year.  The bill establishing this national holiday received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, passed unanimously in the Senate with only 14 Representatives dissenting in the House. This new federal holiday will join other national celebrations: for our independence as a nation, our laborers who built this nation, and our servicemen and women who served and died in our nation’s defense. Yet, if you are like many Americans, you know very little about the significance of our newest national holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates the day- June 19, 1865- when 2000 Union troops, led by Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived on the island of Galveston, Texas to enforce the emancipation of the slaves in that town.  The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, had freed the three million enslaved people living in Confederate states.  Enforcement of that Proclamation generally relied upon the advance of Union troops over the course of two and a half years.  Texas, as the most remote state in the Confederacy, had seen an expansion of slavery as people fled the war bringing their slaves with them.  By 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas, who were unaware of the President’s 1863 Proclamation.  On June 19, 1865, Major General Granger announced to the people of Galveston that their slaves were now free men and women, that they were henceforth to be treated as “equals,” and that their labor was to be compensated with wages commensurate to their work.  The former slaves immediately began to celebrate, centering their celebrations in their church communities with prayer and song and dance.

Over the years, Juneteenth has been called Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Black Independence Day.  Yet, while Juneteenth National Independence Day commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, June 19, 1865, did not actually mark the end of “legal” slavery in our nation.  The Emancipation Proclamation only declared slaves in Confederate states “free”, leaving slaves in the Union border states still legally enslaved.  It would take an Amendment to the Constitution- the 13th Amendment- to establish the value of all persons as “free” in our national documents.  The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, after a serious battle in the House.  February 1, 1865, the proposed amendment was sent to the state legislatures for ratification.  The necessary number of states (3/4ths) ratified the 13th Amendment by December 6, 1865. (Sadly, President Lincoln would not live to see that day.)

As I began reading about Juneteenth, I became fascinated by the dates… by the time between the dates… by the time that it takes to bring change… by the stubbornness of the human spirit to embrace change even if it is just and true.  Consider a few dates:
  • July 4, 1776- The Declaration of Independence declared “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  In 1776, “all men” meant white men who owned land, leaving many of us out of the promises.
  • March 1, 1780, the Gradual Abolition Act was passed by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania beginning the gradual freeing of slaves in the state. 
  • 1787 William Wilberforce began a campaign to abolish slavery in Great Britain and her colonies.  In 1807 Parliament freed all slaves in England and outlawed the participation of British ships in the slave trade.  In 1833 slaves in all British colonies were emancipated.  Since America was no longer a British colony, our nation would continue with legalized slavery until 1865. 
  • January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but it would take the 13th Amendment signed into law on December 6, 1865, to outlaw slavery in the whole of the United States.
Looking at these dates would leave us to think that it took nearly 100 years, from 1776 to 1865 for “all” to become “all.”

Yet, we know from experience that we are still trying to live into the idea of freedom for “all.”  I could list the struggle for the right to vote as an example… the battle against Jim Crow laws (that continued until 1965), and the four amendments to our Constitution over 100 years needed to declare voting rights for “all” (1865, 1870, 1920, 1964).  Even with these amendments, we see a continued struggle to define and at times limit access to the right to vote.  For too long we have allowed “all” to be politically defined.  But for my brothers and sisters in the faith, let me offer one more date to consider: Day 6 of Creation… when God created humanity “in the image of God.” (Genesis 1:26)… all humanity… ALL… created “in the image of God.” God’s “all” should supersede any political limitations that we might design.  God’s “all” began at the dawn of time- why is it taking us so long to catch up?

I invite my brothers and sisters to welcome Juneteenth as a call to action, that our words and our actions, our vote and our stewardship would reflect God’s “all” for all the world to see.

With you yearning for God’s “all” to be our “all,”    
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