Tomorrow is Juneteenth. It has become common knowledge that Juneteenth does not mark the Emancipation Declaration by Abraham Lincoln (January 1, 1863), but rather, a statement by General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, that henceforth, all slaves in Texas were to be considered free and equal. You’ll see the statement in the header, which reads as follows:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights, and rights of property between former master and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that of employer and free laborer. The freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at Military Posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness, there or elsewhere.”

It’s worth noting that Lincoln’s statement of Emancipation was essentially moot: for enslaved people in the Confederacy, a proclamation by the president of a hostile power was not likely to have much effect, at least concretely. If they even knew about it: enslavers would hardly be quick to share the news with their slaves, who were kept illiterate.

Two and a half years later, Gen. Granger makes a similar statement, but at this point, the fundamentals have changed drastically. The victorious Union Army was now in a position to actually enforce the new reality. As a matter of historical investigation, it would be interesting to know whether and how Union troops intervened to enforce this new law.

And of course, Gen. Granger’s statement and any threat of coercion would not have changed the hearts and minds of the enslavers. Indeed, such external coercion as this would simply have driven the struggle from the external world onto other, more difficult fields: the hearts and minds of the enslavers. On that battlefield, it is terribly difficult to win victory, given all the trenches and fortifications, built up over generations, over hundreds of years. We are still in the process of breaking those down. In a 1963 essay entitled, “Letters to a White Liberal,” Catholic writer and mystic Thomas Merton wrote, “We are forced to admit that the Civil Rights legislation is not the end of the battle but only the beginning of a new and more critical phase in the conflict.”

The “absolute equality of rights” mentioned by Granger has yet to be achieved. Having the “right” to do something is not the same as having the ability and the capacity to do it.

The upshot: It is a long, long way from declaration to realization. It is good to celebrate the declaration. But in addition to the fun and public celebrations, it would be a useful Juneteenth activity to consider the ways that in our minds and in our political work, more progress could be made toward full realization of Granger’s Declaration of “absolute equality.” What new kinds of company can we seek, what new forms of community can we create? What can and should we be doing where housing, education, and economic mobility are concerned? What plans and projects should we undertake? Let me know what you come up with.


Comments are closed