Today, June 19th, marks the anniversary of the day Texas abolished slavery in 1865. Several states, including Texas, recognize it. The Federal Government has also recognized “Juneteenth Independence Day,” although it is not an official Federal holiday.
Perhaps of more consequence, Apple added Juneteenth to the list of official U.S. holidays this year. I’m embarrassed to admit that while I had a vague sense of Juneteenth, it wasn’t until it popped up on my phone that I started to pay attention.
So I dug deeper…
Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862, the Civil War continued until Lee’s surrender in April of 1865. Word of the surrender did not reach Texas until May of that year. It was not until the day after the Union Army occupied Texas on June 18th that the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced in Texas, the last place in the United States where our fellow Americans were held in slavery.
However, the conclusion of the Civil War did not mark the end, but rather the beginning of the struggle for equal rights for all. It is a struggle that continues to this day.
As I reflect on Juneteenth, I’m reminded of the stirring words from the middle verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900:
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
The journey to freedom described in these words feels starkly apt today as migrants and refugees from violence make their way to our southern border only to have their families torn asunder.
Today, the hopefulness of the final two lines, “Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last / Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast” feels misplaced. Frankly, I struggle not to feel as if we live in the days when “hope unborn” is dead.
And yet, as one looks to the final verse, James Weldon Johnson calls us to hopefulness and gratitude:
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Indeed, Juneteenth gives us the opportunity to reflect not only on how far this country has come, but how fragile that progress is and how much further we need to go. Our job is to stay “forever in the path.”
That is what God calls us to do.