For the second year America is proudly celebrating Juneteenth as a federal holiday, marking the jubilant date in 1865 when many enslaved people in Texas finally learned they were free from federal troops arriving in Galveston after the end of the Civil War—more than two and a half years after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in the Confederate states. Black families have celebrated Juneteenth for generations, starting in Texas. The scholar Annette Gordon-Reed has written about her childhood memories of Juneteenth in her Texas hometown, describing the red soda, barbecued meat, games, and firecrackers, and the way Black community elders used the holiday to teach history:
“In my small town, the story of Gordon Granger, the U.S. Army general who announced, in Galveston, on June 19, 1865, that slavery was over, was told with seriousness and bits of gallows humor. The older people joked that the Emancipation Proclamation had actually been signed two years before, but ‘the white people’ wanted to get a few extra harvest seasons in before they told ‘the Negroes’ about it. My father would say, with a sardonic smile and a short laugh, that it was worse than that: ‘the slaves have never really been freed.’”
Her father was not the only one who felt that way. Today Juneteenth is a chance for all of us to honor this history together, rejoice in how far we’ve come, and reflect on how far we still have to go in the slow, hard, and unfinished journey towards freedom and racial justice in our nation. In my dear friend and beloved role model Fannie Lou Hamer’s eternal words, nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
I share again a prayer by Reverend James Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City and an anchor of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute at Haley Farm, to sustain and strengthen us as we carry on the struggle to set all of our children free from poverty, racism, and violence in all forms, especially gun violence.
TO SET ALL THE CHILDREN FREE
“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a frame of mind
It’s working hard in our own backyard—to leave no child behind
“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a children’s prayer
It’s sacrifice, at any price, to show them that we care
“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a memory
It’s a new resolve, to get involved in building community
“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a distant dream
And a place on the freedom team
“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a protest song
It’s a loving vow, to show somehow, we all can get along
“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a melody
It’s a one-by-one till the job is done to set all the children free
“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a freedom song
It’s confidence, being convinced that right will conquer wrong
“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a song we sing
It’s the will to fight, to make things right, so the freedom bell can ring
For the children, ring
For the children, ring
Through the power of the Spirit, let’s empower each other to go out with power to set all the children free.