As America grapples with racism and extremism, the Juneteenth celebration recognizing the end of slavery has taken on new significance. This week, President Joe Biden signed into law a new federal holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery 156 years ago.
Unlike the contentious 15-year political battle over Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the last federal holiday to be adopted — the Juneteenth proposal met relatively little resistance. After a fraught year where Americans of all backgrounds took to the streets demanding police accountability for killings of Black people, many believed there wasn’t appetite in Congress for a political fight over the holiday.
But USC experts believe there is still unfinished business in expanding participation in the democratic process and reforming the criminal justice system if we wish to truly reckon with the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism.
Progress on racism is inevitably followed by backlash
“I often think about the jubilant self-congratulation and definitive declarations that slavery had ended from politicians at the end of the Civil War when all the while an entire population of Black Americans continued to toil in bondage,” said Alaina Morgan, an assistant professor of history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Has that dynamic really changed?
Trained as a historian of the African Diaspora, Morgan’s research focuses on the historic utility of religion, in particular Islam, in racial liberation and anti-colonial movements of the mid- to late-20th century Atlantic world. She warned that American history is rife with examples of backsliding on racial progress.
“Since the 1960s, we’ve had successive waves of legislation meant to prevent racial discrimination in housing, in employment, in education and in barriers to political participation,” she said. “And likewise, to the present day, we’ve had successive waves of backlash.”
She noted that during the 2020 election, a record number of Black people turned out and were able to successfully cast their ballots. States including Georgia and Arizona — which flipped from Republican to Democratic representation in Congress — have since enacted legislation “not to make it easier to vote but to make it more difficult for people, especially poor and Black people, to do so.”
“This unwillingness to attack structural racism at its source — and indeed, the erection of new barriers to making equal citizens — is part of slavery’s enduring legacy and seems, unfortunately, as American as apple pie,” Morgan added.
On Juneteenth 2021, consider what history teaches us about voting rights
“As we head into Juneteenth 2021, voting rights are central to our national discussion,” said Christian Grose, an associate professor at USC Dornsife and the USC Price School of Public Policy and an expert on the role of race in the political process. “Access to the ballot box was increased in 2020 to voters of color across the U.S. through the ingenuity of local election administrators using drop boxes, early voting, vote-by-mail and Election Day voting.”
In his role as academic director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, Grose oversaw a nonpartisan elections grant program for local officials during the 2020 election. Dozens of grants were awarded by the Schwarzenegger Institute to fund the opening of polling locations and provide hazard pay for election workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Grose points out that historically, voting rights expansions have been followed by restrictions. “We know that, following emancipation, Reconstruction provided full voting rights to African American men. Yet the Jim Crow era severely restricted Black voting rights until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
“As we remember Juneteenth, we should also remember that the right to vote has frequently been expanded and then curtailed in our American democracy,” he said.
Freedom wasn’t given, but a hard-won struggle
“Often, in popular accounts, the date June 19, 1965, is followed by the phrase, ‘two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation,’ as though Abraham Lincoln had actually ‘freed the slaves’ by his proclamation in 1863,” said Ariela Gross, a professor of law and history at the USC Gould School of Law who researches race and slavery in the United States. “As a historian who has studied the multiple ways enslaved people claimed and seized freedom for themselves, I believe Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate freedom as it was taken, not given.”
I believe Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate freedom as it was taken, not given.
Gross, who is the author of Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana, explained that during the Civil War, enslaved people “rushed to Union camps in such numbers that they forced Union leaders to deal with them; Black participation in the Union Army turned the tide against the Confederacy. Freedom was not a gift from Abraham Lincoln or white emancipators; it was a hard-won struggle over centuries.”
Gross added that Juneteenth did not bring an end to that struggle either; instead, “the struggle for full freedom and citizenship continued after the war and continues to the present day.”
Juneteenth 2021 offers ‘the hope and promise of a more inclusive us’
Jody Armour studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making as the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the USC Gould School of Law. When he considers the symbolic importance of designating Juneteenth a federal holiday, he reflects on his own father, Fred Armour, who was incarcerated for 6 years.
“On Juneteenth, we celebrate the deliverance of Black bodies from bondage,” Armour said. “When I think of Black bodies in bondage, I think of my own father, a Black veteran of the second World War and proud marine. Our nation showed its gratitude to his service by falsely incarcerating him for the alleged sale of marijuana.”
Armour’s father became a jailhouse lawyer, using the warden’s own law books, and eventually won his freedom from prison. At first, Armour said, he thought of his father’s continued patriotism as a kind of Stockholm syndrome — a hostage who had bonded with his captors. But eventually, “I came to see his patriotic devotion to the American flag as a profoundly political act, one intimately wedded to Juneteenth. My dad knew that the flag he bled for once stood for slavery and Jim Crow. But he also knew that meanings are not fixed.”
“The hope and promise of a more inclusive us is what my dad saluted in the American flag and celebrated on the Fourth of July,” Armour continued, “And it’s that same promise that moves me to celebrate Juneteenth as well as the Fourth of July.”