June­teenth’s joy fea­tures protests

More Amer­i­cans aware of hol­i­day in wake of un­rest

Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - By Jonathan Mattise and Michelle R. Smith

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A tra­di­tional day of cel­e­bra­tion turned into one of protest Fri­day, as Amer­i­cans marked June­teenth, a hol­i­day that long com­mem­o­rated the eman­ci­pa­tion of enslaved African Amer­i­cans but burst into the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion this year af­ter wide­spread demon­stra­tions against po­lice bru­tal­ity and racism.

In ad­di­tion to tra­di­tional cook­outs and read­ings of the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion — the Civil War-era or­der that de­clared all slaves free in Con­fed­er­ate ter­ri­tory — Amer­i­cans were march­ing, hold­ing sit-ins or car car­a­van protests.

In Nashville, Ten­nessee, about two dozen Black men, most wear­ing suits, qui­etly stood arm in arm in front of the city’s crim­i­nal courts. Be­hind them was a statue of Jus­tice Adolpho Birch, the first African Amer­i­can to serve as chief jus­tice of the Ten­nessee Supreme Court.

“If you were un­com­fort­able stand­ing out here in a suit, imag­ine how you would feel with a knee to your neck,” said Phillip McGee, one of the demon­stra­tors, re­fer­ring to Ge­orge Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 af­ter a white Min­neapo­lis po­lice of­fi­cer pressed a knee into his neck for sev­eral min­utes. The killing has sparked weeks of sus­tained, na­tion­wide protest.

Former Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln first is­sued the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion on Sept. 22, 1862, and it be­came ef­fec­tive the fol­low­ing Jan. 1. But it wasn’t en­forced in many places un­til af­ter the Civil War ended in April 1865. Word didn’t reach the last enslaved Black peo­ple un­til June 19 of that year, when

Union sol­diers brought the news of free­dom to Galve­ston, Texas.

Most states and the Dis­trict of Columbia rec­og­nize June­teenth, which is a blend of June and 19th, as a state hol­i­day or day of recog­ni­tion, like Flag Day. But in the wake of protests of Floyd’s killing this year and against a back­drop of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic that has dis­pro­por­tion­ately harmed Black com­mu­ni­ties, more Amer­i­cans — es­pe­cially white Amer­i­cans — are be­com­ing fa­mil­iar with the hol­i­day and com­mem­o­rat­ing it.

“We didn’t just learn about June­teenth. Other peo­ple just learned about June­teenth,” said Char­ity Dean, di­rec­tor of Detroit’s of­fice of Civil Rights, In­clu­sion and Op­por­tu­nity, who spoke at an event that drew hun­dreds of peo­ple Fri­day. “We’re here to­day be­cause this is a Black city, and we are ex­cited to be Black in this city and to make change.”

As the protests force more Amer­i­cans to grap­ple with racism in the coun­try’s past and present, some places that didn’t al­ready mark June­teenth as a paid hol­i­day moved in re­cent days to do so, in­clud­ing New York state and Hunt­ing­ton, West Vir­ginia.

In Ten­nessee, Repub­li­can Gov. Bill Lee signed a procla­ma­tion Fri­day to rec­og­nize June­teenth Day. The move came the week af­ter Repub­li­can law­mak­ers voted to keep in place a day com­mem­o­rat­ing Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bed­ford For­rest but re­move the gover­nor’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to sign the an­nual procla­ma­tion for it. Lee had pro­posed elim­i­nat­ing the day but said law­mak­ers made a step in the right di­rec­tion.

The protests have started to yield con­crete re­sults. Colorado Gov. Jared Po­lis signed into law a broad po­lice ac­count­abil­ity bill that bans choke­holds, re­quires po­lice body cam­eras and re­moves le­gal bar­ri­ers that pro­tect of­fi­cers from law­suits. Wis­con­sin Gov. Tony Evers called on the Leg­is­la­ture to ban choke­holds and make other re­forms. Both are Democrats.

In ad­di­tion, amid long­stand­ing de­mands to re­move sym­bols and names as­so­ci­ated with slav­ery and op­pres­sion, some are com­ing down. Hun­dreds gath­ered Thurs­day night in an At­lanta sub­urb to watch a crane re­move a Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ment that had stood in the town square since 1908.

Events mark­ing June­teenth were ex­pected to be held in ev­ery ma­jor Amer­i­can city on Fri­day, al­though some were be­ing held vir­tu­ally due to the coro­n­avirus.

“Black peo­ple came here against their will and made Amer­ica what it is to­day,” said New Yorker Jac­que­line Forbes, a Ja­maican im­mi­grant, who marched on the Brook­lyn Bridge. She said she wants June­teenth to carry a mean­ing akin to July Fourth. “This is some­thing we need to cel­e­brate.”

In Louisiana, com­mu­nity and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups won a court fight to hold a June­teenth cer­e­mony at a site ar­chae­ol­o­gists have de­scribed as prob­a­bly a ceme­tery for enslaved African

Amer­i­cans. The land is be­ing used to build a $9.4 bil­lion chem­i­cal com­plex.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is­sued a mes­sage for June­teenth in which he noted “the unimag­in­able in­jus­tice of slav­ery and the in­com­pa­ra­ble joy that must have at­tended eman­ci­pa­tion.”

“It is both a re­mem­brance of a blight on our his­tory and a cel­e­bra­tion of our Na­tion’s un­sur­passed abil­ity to tri­umph over dark­ness,” Trump added.

Trump had orig­i­nally planned a rally in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, Fri­day, but changed the day to Satur­day amid an uproar about his ap­pear­ance on a date of such sig­nif­i­cance. Pro­test­ers have been gath­er­ing at the venue this week ahead of his ap­pear­ance.

JOE RAEDLE/GETTY

Peo­ple pray at a June­teenth event Fri­day in At­lanta. The day cel­e­brates the eman­ci­pa­tion of enslaved African Amer­i­cans.

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