Celebrating Juneteenth in a Moment of Peril

The holiday celebrates the emancipation of American slaves—and a citizenship that has never quite been fully granted.

Members of the group "Visionz of Tomorrow" perform during Juneteenth celebrations at Nichol Park on June 19, 2004, in Richmond, California.  (David Paul Morris / Getty)

Across most of the reaches of the United States, the originally Texan holiday of Juneteenth is ascending in importance as a national commemoration of the emancipation of American slaves. The practices are fittingly patchwork. There are parades, symbolic baptisms, cookouts, family reunions, spades games, durag festivals, and nighttime vigils at churches. Different communities’ celebrations of emancipation are a bit like quilts, stitched together from patches of the past and present, the things carried and the things hoped for, built from cherished achievements and scraps alike. No two pieces are the same, but all that matters in the end is the warmth.

This Juneteenth, circumstances conspire to make one piece of that patchwork all the more prominent. Perhaps more so than at any time in the recent past, there is a contemporary uncertainty about the pillars of citizenship that have supported black aspiration in America. Voting rights and the continued place of the Voting Rights Act are uniquely imperiled. The promise of true ownership in society is in some places no closer than it was 50 years ago. In every cross-section of class and age, black people in the country appear increasingly anxious about their status. Juneteenth is a celebratory holiday, and there is much to celebrate, but its growing prominence seems to have more to do with insecurity than with victory.

The animating spirit of Juneteenth is well encapsulated by James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing.” “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,” Johnson wrote. “Out from the gloomy past / Till now we stand at last / Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.” The song is at once brutal and intrinsically hopeful. Johnson’s lyrics recall the grand exodus of the Israelites, recounting the attrition of slavery and the deliverance to the present day. Those themes fit a renewed turn-of-the-century optimism, one that saw the children and grandchildren of the enslaved as campaigners on an inexorable march to full citizenship.

But at the time, the song’s lyrics would prove to be ironic. Johnson completed his masterpiece in 1900, an inauspicious time for black civil rights in the country. The next year, the state of Alabama completed its mammoth state constitution, one built on a foundation of white supremacy. As one of the last major state “white supremacy” constitutions, Alabama marked the completion of the project that we now know to be Jim Crow. Central to that project was an indefinite postponement of the promise of full citizenship. White politicians across the South propagated clever schemes like poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise black people, and conceived of felony disenfranchisement as a way to keep black men especially as a nonvoting laboring class. In the system of formalized segregation and the random institutionalized terror of white supremacists, the hope of black land ownership—itself a dream of citizenship in an agrarian society where land granted political representation—was largely snuffed out.

After the failed promise of Reconstruction collapsed, the descendants of enslaved people found themselves facing a regime that again promised them nothing but an empty citizenship, one where they worked, paid taxes, and were compelled to serve in the military, but received none of society’s benefits or its civil rights. This “emasculated citizenship,” as Frederick Douglass called it in the pages of The Atlantic in 1866, would last as a formal policy a year shy of a full century from his first utterance. Yet a growing diaspora still celebrated emancipation. As Isabel Wilkerson writes in The Warmth of Other Suns, “the people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went.” With little hope of meaningful participation, facing hardened segregation, lynchings, and the steady erosion of the land and holdings they did have, the people fled. They took with them their celebrations of emancipation, passing down stories and traditions, and importing the necessary artifacts—like Big Red soda.

Ostensibly, that century as second-class citizens ended with the collapse of Jim Crow and the civil-rights victories of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Passed in early August 1965, as a near-centennial commemoration of Juneteenth and the original summer of emancipation in the United States, the Voting Rights Act had a particular bit of temporal resonance. Treading a path through the blood of the slaughtered, the titans of the civil-rights movement and Congress had agreed to finally grant the scions of enslaved people a stake and a say in America.

But that’s not where the story ends. While the Voting Rights Act was perhaps the most consequential legislation of the history, and opened the door for millions of black voters to finally cast their ballots, it was just another beginning of an often-disrupted conversation over who gets to be a full citizen of America. In the 1968 Juneteenth celebration that marked the final dissolution of the ill-fated Poor People’s Campaign, the recently widowed civil-rights activist and wife of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, expressed a deep frustration in the moment. “Perhaps racism can be traced to that dark period in our history when slavery became institutionalized for 244 years, and segregation was practiced for another hundred years,” Scott King told the crowd. “So, you see, the roots of racism are very deep in the psyche of the American white man. All forms of economic, political, social, educational, and religious exclusion of the black man from the mainstream of society can be attributed to racism.”

Like emancipation before it, the grant of voting rights triggered a strong backlash. While this backlash was certainly characterized by white-supremacist violence, it was just as often as not exercised in courtrooms, in PTA meetings, and in homeowners’ associations. The five decades of a white anti-civil-rights counterrevolution—and their resulting creation of the modern state of federal law enforcement—are well-documented, from the pernicious legacy of northern housing discrimination to multiple rounds of discriminatory voter-ID laws, which research suggests are motivated almost purely by white antipathy toward black exercise of the franchise.

With the Voting Rights Act defanged by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, with black wealth still close to nonexistent, with voter-ID laws ready to return to ballots, and with the federal government drawing back from its historical presence as a watchman over the boundaries of citizenship, the promise of Juneteenth is, simply, in dire straits. More than at any time in recent history, black voters believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, and virtually all of those who participated in a recent poll saw the racial situation in America as one of deterioration. Even as the White House states today that it celebrates Juneteenth by “defending the self-evident truth, boldly declared by our Founding Fathers, that all people are created equal,” by the numbers, this is a nadir.

Yet, Juneteenth spreads. The holiday grows and syncretizes the ways in which black Americans in communities celebrate freedom. It’s in the papers; it is impossible to ignore. The prevalence of the celebration and the current state of black citizenship might not be in conflict though. Jubilee has always been promoted the most when times are the hardest. Just as Juneteenth became proselytic during the Great Migrations in which millions fled persecution, and just as its most prominent national celebration came just months after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., so its fervor might be increasing when black voters feel their power is increasingly fragile.

Much of black American history is told in centennial terms. The civil-rights movement was sparked a century after the intransigence of enslaved people helped spark the Civil War. James Weldon Johnson stood roughly between the two ends of the era, facing an America that grasped back at one end even as is sped toward another. Fifty-three years after the Voting Rights Act, America currently stands in the middle of such a century. In which direction does it grasp now?