National Observance of Juneteenth is Still a Struggle

National Observance of Juneteenth is Still a Struggle

With the broadcast of the “Roots” 2016 mini-series, the re-imagining of the original iconic broadcast in 1977, ending earlier this month, it may be the beginning of a burgeoning interest of millennials and younger in exploring the history of black slavery, the eventual emancipation of slaves and beyond. On the last night of the series, Chicken George fights in the Civil War as part of the Memphis Colored Battery, helping the Union Army secure freedom for black slaves throughout the South.

However, while the official date of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves was enacted on Jan. 1, 1863, it would take two years for slaves in Galveston, Texas to learn of their freedom on June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in the city and told them they were free. In years since, June 19 began to be celebrated across the country as Juneteenth and in 1980, the Texan legislature established Juneteenth as a state holiday. Still, the celebration of Juneteenth, which has been inconsistent throughout the course of history, has yet to achieve the recognition and popularity of other official American holidays.

Rev. Ronald V. Meyers Sr., chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, has been working since 1994 when he helped organize the foundation that is working to have Juneteenth recognized as a national American holiday. “Forty-five states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or a special day of recognition or observance. We’re still missing North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Montana, and Hawaii,” says Meyers.

Myers learned about Juneteenth through celebrations in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We had one of the largest celebrations around and it was then that I began to understand the history of our freedom in America, and I took that with me wherever I went.”

By 1994, Myers, who was living in Louisiana then, met with Juneteenth enthusiasts from across the country at Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans. He was selected to be the chairman of National Juneteenth Observance Foundation at the meeting. “We wanted to work together for greater recognition of Juneteenth to make it like Flag Day and have a day set aside for the celebration.”

While Myers has been successful in securing senate resolutions in 2014 and 2015, designating June 19 as Juneteenth, he had hoped to gain President Obama’s support of Juneteenth by his last year in office.

“When President Obama was a state senator in Illinois, he supported legislation to officially recognize Juneteenth in 2003. And when he was a U.S. senator, he sponsored legislation to recognize Juneteenth in the U.S. Senate in 2006. But he hasn’t issued a proclamation to make Juneteenth Independence Day a National Day of Observance as president or held a Juneteenth celebration at the White House. I don’t know why since the White House was built by slaves.”

While President Obama has not issued a proclamation, he did issue a statement on June 19, 2015 supporting the observance of Juneteenth which was posted on the White House website. He also referenced the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E., which occurred a year ago on June 17. To read the statement, click here.

The home of author and illustrator Floyd Cooper's great-grandparents who were slaves.

The home of author and illustrator Floyd Cooper’s great-grandparents who were slaves. (Photo Courtesy of Floyd Cooper)

Similarly to Meyers, Floyd Cooper, children’s book author and illustrator, remembers celebrating Juneteenth in Haskell, Oklahoma where he grew up. “I’m from a very large extended family, and all of my cousins, aunts, uncles and everyone would get together and have big cookouts for Juneteenth.”

He also remembers hearing about his family’s history from his great-grandparents who were freed slaves and lived in a home built from stone in Oklahoma. They migrated to Oklahoma after packing up in a covered wagon and leaving Texas. Before that, they moved from Georgia where they worked as slaves on a plantation owned by an Irish man. “They said he never whipped them which was important for them,” Cooper says.

His great-grandparents also kept a photograph of one of their slave ancestors from Georgia in their home. “I remember being a child looking up at that photograph. It was in one of those oval frames.”

While he hasn’t been able to link his great-grandparents directly to the slaves who heard about the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19 in Galveston, Texas, he did draw from his own family’s history to write and illustrate Juneteenth for Mazie, a children’s picture book of the history of Juneteenth which was published in 2015 .

In the book, Mazie’s father teaches young Mazie about the struggles and the triumphs of her family’s past as they prepare to celebrate Juneteenth. “Juneteenth is a great American holiday,” Cooper says.

However, some are not in favor of celebrating nor recognizing Juneteenth. Ronda Racha Penrice, author of African American History For Dummies, is one of those detractors.

“[Juneteenth] reinforces Black people as passive and as people waiting for others to free them when black people in the South would tell Union soldiers when they showed up that they were free and come and set up camp with Union soldiers,” Penrice says. “Many of them wrote letters to the White House for instructions as to what to do. This influenced the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Penrice also doesn’t believe that June 19 is a particularly special day as slaves throughout the South became aware of their freedom on different days.

“Emancipation Day celebrations took place May 8 for some and August 8 for others.” Penrice also pointed out in her book that many of the celebrations stopped after 1920 when black people moved to larger cities and wanted to disassociate from their rural pasts.

However, while Meyers agrees that slaves learned about their freedom on various days, he still believes that freedom from slavery should be celebrated.

“My challenge to African Americans is ‘What day do you celebrate our freedom?'” he says. “On the 4th of July when Americans of African descent were still caught up in the tyranny of slavery?”


Do you and the people you know observe Juneteenth? Why or why not? Sound off below.


Someone You Should Know: Cathay Williams

Someone You Should Know: Cathay Williams

rsz_cathay_williamsCathay Williams, born in 1842, was the first known African American woman to enlist in the United States Army and the first and only female buffalo soldier.

Although some believe Williams, the daughter of a slave woman and a “free man of color,” enlisted in the army due to a need for income, no one knows for sure as to why she decided to portray herself as a male and enlist. While serving in the military, she was assigned to Company A of the 38th U.S. Infantry.

Williams was often hospitalized due to strain and smallpox, which is how medical personnel discovered that she was a woman. In 1868, Captain Charles Clarke honorably discharged Williams once he learned of her true identity.

Shortly after being discharged, she found several jobs that ranged from cooking to nursing across the state of Colorado. In 1891, she filed for a military “invalid pension,” due to her declining health stemming from her time in the military. Her petition was declined.

There is little information on Williams after 1892, but she is believed to have died sometime within the next several years.


Interested in learning more about other figures in black history? Read the courageous story of Claudette Colvin here.


Let’s talk about it. Can you think of other unsung, Black American heroes? Share their stories in the comments below.

Someone You Should Know: Claudette Colvin

Someone You Should Know: Claudette Colvin

claudette_colvinRosa Parks is affectionately known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” after she refused to surrender her bus seat to a White passenger. But what some may not know is that there was another African American female who performed this same courageous act several months before Parks.

Her name is Claudette Colvin, and with thick glasses framing her small face, and roller set curls hanging on her forehead, a curious and awakened Claudette Colvin defied the law and—to many—logic. At only 15 years old, her disobedience was anything but sophomoric. In her time and geographical location, Blacks were harassed, beaten, and lynched without regard to age or sex. Despite grueling conditions of the Jim Crow South, on March 2, 1955, the young Claudette stood her ground on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and refused to give up her seat for a White passenger.

There were several reasons why Claudette’s valiant efforts were suppressed and not widely known. One of those reasons was that because of her age, Claudette was considered “unreliable” by leading civil rights groups. In addition to ageism, classism and colorism may have played a role as well: Claudette was from a working-class family, and according to her, that fact—as well as her dark complexion—made her an unpalatable choice to garner the sympathies of the masses, both Black and White. Claudette also had one other undesirable issue separating her from history books: a few months after her arrest, Claudette became pregnant. Thus, the upright Rosa Parks, who was considered “morally clean” by then NAACP leader E.D. Nixon, overshadowed the dark, poor, unwed pregnant teenager.

In 1956, Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.


Let’s talk about it. Can you think of other unsung, Black American heroes? Share their stories in the comments below.


Interested in learning more about other figures in black history? Read the courageous story of Cathay Williams here.

The Road from Selma was Paved with the Blood of Four Unsung Martyrs

The Road from Selma was Paved with the Blood of Four Unsung Martyrs

c. 2015 Religion News Service

(RNS) They were just four of the thousands of Americans who came to Selma 50 years ago, heeding the call of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for people of conscience to join in protesting the plight of African-Americans in Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement.

The four marytrs — a Baptist deacon, a minister, a Unitarian laywoman and an Episcopal seminarian — are largely unknown, but they’re being remembered for sacrificing their lives for the rights of others.

The names of all four are etched in the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., along with 36 others — starting with Mississippi minister George Lee, who died in 1955, and ending with King, who was assassinated in 1968.

“The gravity of his call for justice in the South became punctuated even more graphically by these deaths,” said Montgomery historian Richard Bailey.

The Baptist deacon: Jimmie Lee Jackson


Jimmie Lee Jackson was a 26-year-old deacon of his Baptist church in Marion, Ala., and had been involved in local protests. (Photo Credit: Southern Poverty Law Center)

“His death is what really precipitated the march from Selma to Montgomery,” Bailey said. Jackson was a 26-year-old deacon of his Baptist church in Marion, Ala., and had been active in local protests.

“He actually attempted to register to vote about five times before his death,” said Brandon Owens, staff research associate at the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture at Alabama State University.

Jackson was fleeing police who attacked protesters after a peaceful demonstration. He was shot inside a Selma cafe at the hands of an Alabama state trooper while trying to protect his grandfather and mother on Feb. 18, 1965, and died eight days later.

Angered by his death — a pivotal scene in the recent film “Selma” — some protesters wanted to lay Jackson’s body at the foot of the Alabama Capitol.

“They did not do that in actuality,” said Janice Franklin, project director of the civil rights center. “But that was the original message that they wanted to send, not only to Alabama and the Capitol, but also to send a signal around the world that blacks were being killed here in Alabama trying to vote.”

In his eulogy for Jackson, King called many — including his fellow clergy — to account: “He was murdered by the indifference of every white minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of his stained-glass windows.”

In 2010, former trooper James Bonard Fowler pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor manslaughter charge in Jackson’s slaying and was sentenced to six months in prison.

The Unitarian minister: the Rev. James Reeb


The Rev. James Reeb, father of four and Unitarian Universalist minister. (Photo Credit: Unitarian Universalist Association)

“Four men came at us from across the street,” recalled the Rev. Clark Olsen, now 81 and living in Asheville, N.C. “One of them was carrying a club and swung it at Jim’s head.”

Reeb, Olsen and another white Unitarian Universalist minister had just met and decided to eat dinner together on March 9, 1965, after the second, aborted “Turnaround Tuesday” march. All three had headed to Selma to answer King’s call for ministers to join him there. They were about to return from supper to the church where there was a meeting with King when the white men shouted at them: “Hey, you niggers!”

Reeb, a 38-year-old father of four, was taken to a Birmingham hospital and died two days later.

His trip to Selma wasn’t the first time he worked to improve the lives of African-Americans. He had taken a job with a Quaker organization in Boston to work on housing issues.

“He felt it was appropriate to live among the people he was working with,” Olsen said. “He was just a very committed person this way and wanted to do good in the world and right some of the wrongs in our society.”

King preached Reeb’s eulogy, and hours later, President Lyndon B. Johnson mentioned Reeb’s death and the violence of Selma when he addressed Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act: “Many were brutally assaulted; one good man, a man of God, was killed.”

Three white men were charged in Reeb’s death. All were acquitted.

The Unitarian laywoman: Viola Liuzzo


Viola Liuzzo, 39, a mother of five, drove her 1963 Oldsmobile to Selma and had planned to stay for a week. (Photo Credit: Unitarian Universalist Association)

“Her affiliation with Unitarians did influence her decision to drive south,” said her daughter, Sally, of her mother’s trek from Detroit. “However, even if she was not involved in any church, she would have went anyways; that is who she was. She loved her country and knew segregation was not right; she wanted a better world for her children.”

Liuzzo, 39, a mother of five, drove her 1963 Oldsmobile to Selma and had planned to stay for a week. “She came here because she was civil rights-minded,” said Bailey. “She wanted to help.”

She died on March 25, 1965, shortly after the conclusion of the last of the three marches from Selma. She was killed by shots fired from a car of Ku Klux Klansmen — who spotted a white woman and a black man in a car together — as she drove another civil rights worker from Selma to Montgomery.

Her decision to come to Alabama, after hearing King’s call for ministers and others, was a continuation of her earlier work on social justice.

“Before becoming active in civil rights, she was an advocate for education and economic justice reform and was arrested twice — in both cases requesting a trial to publicize her cause,” according to UU World magazine, a publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

One of the four white men in the car was an FBI informant. The other three were sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy but were not found guilty of murder.

The Episcopal seminarian: Jonathan Daniels


Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels of Keene, N.H. (Photo Credit: Religion News Service)

“He pulled me out of the way and the bullet hit him instead,” said Ruby Sales, now 66, recalling the day, Aug. 20, 1965, that Daniels saved her life and lost his.

They had just been released from jail, where they were held with other civil rights workers who were protesting the exploitation of black sharecroppers by white plantation owners in Fort Deposit, Ala. Daniels, 26, and Sales were in a group of people who stopped at a store to buy a soda. A white special deputy sheriff aimed a gun at Sales, and Daniels took the shot.

Daniels, the valedictorian of his class at the Virginia Military Institute, had left his Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, Mass., and headed to Selma, like others, answering King’s call after the first “Bloody Sunday” march. But unlike many who left, he stayed and worked on voter registration in Lowndes County and also pushed for the integration of a white Episcopal congregation in Selma.

“He was not there because he had no other options in life,” said Sales, founder of the SpiritHouse Project, a social justice nonprofit in Atlanta. “He was there because he chose to be there.”

Montgomery historian Alston Fitts, who was a Harvard grad school classmate of Daniels, said the white seminarian worked hard to not respond to hate in kind. He defended white Southerners to his Northern friends as “imperfect Christians.”

King said of Daniels, according to a VMI website: “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”

The white man charged in his death was acquitted. In 1991, Daniels was recognized as a saint of the Episcopal Church and is remembered each Aug. 14. His Cambridge alma mater and Episcopalians from Atlanta and Alabama plan to mark the 50th anniversary of his death with a pilgrimage to the site of his slaying in August.

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Copyright 2015 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be reproduced without written permission.

Ralph Abernathy: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Overlooked ‘Civil Rights Twin’

Ralph Abernathy: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Overlooked ‘Civil Rights Twin’

c. 2015 Religion News Service

(RNS) In a scene in the movie “Selma,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sits in a jail cell wondering where the civil rights movement is headed. His cellmate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy Sr., responds with a lesson from the Gospel of Matthew about the futility of worrying.

In real life, the two men — family and colleagues say — were inseparable. One man is honored with a national holiday that will be celebrated Monday (Jan. 19) while the other is frequently overlooked, even as he continued King’s plans for decades after King’s 1968 assassination.

“Ralph is the best friend that I have in the world,” King said of Abernathy when his colleague introduced him for what would be his last sermon, in Memphis, Tenn.

But Abernathy, who died in 1990 at age 64, was harshly criticized for writing in his autobiography, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” about King’s marital infidelity. Abernathy’s family members believe that criticism contributed to efforts to “erase” him from the annals of civil rights history. His widow and his namesake son say the new movie does not fully depict the close partnership he had with King.

“It has some positive aspects,” said Juanita Abernathy, who married her husband in 1952. “But the portrayal of my husband, no, it is not correct and that is one of the tragedies of ‘Selma.’”

Asked for a comment about the family’s reaction, director Ava DuVernay said Abernathy’s widow was “nothing but complimentary” at a screening she attended, and her son requested that his daughter get a role as an extra. His request was granted.

King and Abernathy were so close that they dined together with their spouses and children, who called each of the men “Uncle.”

“Martin didn’t do anything that Ralph David Abernathy didn’t do except he took a bullet,” Juanita Abernathy recalled in an interview. “Martin never made a decision that Ralph Abernathy was not a part of. And it trickled down from the two of them to everybody else.”

She said historic photos prove her point: Many show the two men together at significant moments, marching arm in arm or meeting with other figures of the 1960s, including Malcolm X.

“They only met once and my husband was standing right there,” said Juanita Abernathy, who lives in Atlanta. “They shook hands across him — Martin and Malcolm.”

Ralph Abernathy grew up in Linden, Ala., and served in the segregated Army in World War II before starting his life as a pastor in his home state. He was the leader of First Baptist Church of Montgomery and a member of the local NAACP chapter. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her seat on the bus to a white man, he got the call from the chapter president and suggested involving a new local pastor, King, in the steps that led to their joint work on the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s.

Later, both men were co-founders of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization that Abernathy led after King’s death.

Abernathy was one of the last people to speak with King. In a 1986 interview in the Syracuse Herald-American, he recalled that King stepped onto their motel balcony in Memphis while Abernathy went to put on some Aramis cologne. Then a shot was fired. “I had lost my best friend,” he said. “The Aramis saved my life.”

After the assassination, Abernathy marched in Washington to fulfill King’s plans for the Poor People’s Campaign and later worked to get black politicians elected. Controversially, he endorsed Republican Ronald Reagan, who later signed the law marking the King national holiday.

“Ralph Abernathy kept on moving and working to change the course of history in the United States of America for African-Americans and minorities,” his widow said, “and he didn’t stop until he died.”

Abernathy’s son, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy III, has spearheaded an initiative to get his father’s Atlanta church, West Hunter Street Baptist, to receive a National Park Service designation. Freedom Summer training sessions and other voter education projects were held at the church.

Last month, President Obama signed legislation that calls for the site to undergo a special NPS study.

“West Hunter Street Baptist Church stands as a testimony to social activism, civic engagement and the important role African-American churches have played in the American civil rights movement,” said Brent Leggs, a senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “By preserving this landmark, we honor the remarkable life once lived of Ralph David Abernathy Sr., an iconic freedom leader in American history, and the countless and nameless heroes of the movement.”

Those who worked with Abernathy said his association with King was closer than most people realize.

“They used to call them the civil rights twins — he and Dr. King,” recalled Terrie Randolph, who was Abernathy’s secretary when he became president of SCLC after King’s death. “You wouldn’t see one without the other and for any — not only major but minor — decision they consulted with each other.”

The younger Abernathy compared his “Uncle Martin” and his father to the biblical description of Jesus’ sending out the disciples “two by two.”

“You give Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson. You can even give Bobby Kennedy to John,” he said. “Black men came together that were not brothers, but were brothers in spirit.”

Copyright 2015 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be reproduced without written permission.

Is this Kwanzaa’s Moment?

Is this Kwanzaa’s Moment?

I have never celebrated Kwanzaa. Neither my immediate nor extended family has ever celebrated, or barely even acknowledged Kwanzaa. I only know of one personal friend who celebrates Kwanzaa or knows what it is. When I was growing up most people in our family and social circles viewed Kwanzaa with suspicion as some kind of offbeat, anti-religious, maybe even anti-Christian, observance. Apparently my experience is not an outlier.

A 2011 article on The, “Who Actually Celebrates Kwanzaa?” discussed the results of an unscientific survey of its readers which indicated that only 35% of those surveyed celebrate Kwanzaa. It’s curious why a holiday created by us, for us is still—almost 50 years after its creation—experiencing such lackluster participation. Different explanations have been offered for Kwanzaa’s failure to capture either the imagination, finances, or national interest of the black American community: the after-Christmas timing of observance—December 26-January 1—is not ideal because it taxes people during the busiest holiday time of the year; blacks don’t really understand the purpose of the holiday and haven’t been able to contextualize its celebration to make it meaningful or practical; the scandals that surrounded its creator, Dr. Maulana Karenga, who was convicted in 1971 of felonious assault and false imprisonment following charges that he tortured and beat women members of his activist circle. Whatever the reasons may be, we can’t deny that the stated principles and purposes of Kwanzaa are relevant to the social, political, and economic realities of black people’s lives, especially now as we struggle against renewed assaults on our very value, freedom, and right to exist.

Cultural grounded-ness is at the heart of Kwanzaa as it was created to “serve as a regular communal celebration to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between us as a people,” and to “be an ingathering to strengthen community and reaffirm common identity, purpose, and direction as a people.” Its origins as a tactical resistance measure against white oppression in the mid-1960s and its presence as part of the Black Freedom movement reveal striking parallels between Kwanzaa and the burgeoning protest movements rising today. #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza describes her effort as a “tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” Activists have already begun to recognize and highlight the common ground between our struggles today and the antecedent conflicts of yesterday. The night the nation was notified that there would be no criminal indictment of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing teenager Michael Brown, online images almost immediately surfaced that compared photographs of interactions between protesters and police during the King civil rights period, and those between residents of Ferguson and its police. We know we’re both re-living and creating history.

How do we stand our ground against this re-emerging tide of anti-blackness manifesting itself in unjustified killing, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, police brutality and racial profiling, cultural misappropriation, rapes and violent assaults, lower wages, job discrimination, predatory lending, re-segregated schools, and all the other mayhem coming against us? What was once the war-torn environment of large urban areas like Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, and New York has now migrated across the country and blacks feel like embattled refugees in our own country. Tweets from the black community and allies call for unity, resilience, and focus. Black mothers are reminding families to hold their children close and stand up for their rights to a demilitarized education and to live free from unwarranted surveillance, harassment, and targeting. Leaders of established organizations urge protest leaders to identify shared objectives that can unify our concerns and forge a path ahead for results-driven action. Local communities are holding town hall gatherings to discuss their options for protecting their children and getting their voices heard and heeded by politicians and other neighborhood leadership. Spoken word artists, muralists, poets, writers, bloggers, and actors are expressing their and our fears, hopes, frustrations, and resolves over the conditions we face. Even President Obama has weighed in with his My Brother’s Keeper funding and policy initiative. All are good strategies and all are encompassed within the principles of Kwanzaa.

Modeled after traditional African “first fruits” celebrations, Kwanzaa outlines seven principles of focus and practice to uplift and strengthen black identity and community, one for each day of the weeklong celebration. Umoja (Unity) promotes cohesion in the family, community, and race. Kujichagulia (Self determination) says we can define, name, create for and speak for ourselves. Ujima (Collective work and responsibility) encourages us to “build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems.” Ujamaa (Cooperative economics) stresses entrepreneurship and supporting each other’s businesses for our mutual benefit. Nia (Purpose) reminds us to work together for restoration of our people to original greatness. Kuumba (Creativity) speaks to our ability to use our talents, gifts, and ideas to beautify and enhance our community. Imani (Faith), encourages us to believe, with all of our hearts, in our people, parents, teachers and leaders. Without faith, nothing is possible.

Grassroots activists are already living these principles everyday through die-ins, shutting down of freeways, silent vigils, and large-scale marches. It’s just a small step to de-centralize our activities and set time aside in our families and churches to honor their origins and reaffirm our identity as black people striving, dying, and resisting together. Sometimes we must revisit previously discarded aspects of our culture and revive what’s good and helpful for our advancement as a people and Kwanzaa might just be the perfect way to regroup after a tumultuous year.