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Juneteenth 2020: How Far We've Come—and Still Have to Go

By Satta Sarmah Hightower, Jun. 19, 2020


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The History of Racial Progress in America: From Founding to Freedom
Since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619, America has had a complicated history when it comes to race. Black people have had to fight for freedom and equal rights for more than 400 years. Juneteenth exemplifies this complicated history.

The holiday dates back to June 19, 1865, when a major general from the Union arrived in Galveston, Texas, and told slaves that the Civil War had ended and they were free. This was two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and declared all slaves to be free, so these men and women were forced to endure the indignities of slavery long after the law had declared the practice to be over. Even after Lincoln's proclamation, an end to slavery wasn't codified in U.S. law until Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865.

After black Americans were physically free, they still had to fight for equal rights. Several laws that attempted to extend equal rights to freed slaves were passed in the decades after the Thirteenth Amendment, including an 1866 law that afforded all citizens the right to make and enforce contracts and to purchase, sell, or lease property as well as an 1875 law that barred discrimination in public accommodations and on public conveyances on land and water.

The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments addressed one of the most important rights in a democracy: the right to vote. They declared that all men born or naturalized in the U.S. were citizens, that their voting rights couldn't be denied or abridged, and that no state could deprive a citizen of his vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (Black women weren't given the right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920.)

The History of Racial Progress in America: The Civil Rights Movement
Even though black Americans at the end of the nineteenth century had rights on paper, the reality was very different. They continued to face segregation and political disenfranchisement because of Jim Crow laws in the South, economic and social injustice due to lack of access to education and positions of power, and daily acts of violence, intimidation, and discrimination. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of Americans marched, protested, and fought for the rights that black Americans had been granted in the 1800s but were effectively barred from using.

Voting rights were central to the movement. The era culminated in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, as described by the King Encyclopedia, which took place after Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched a voting campaign in Selma. In Selma, only 1% of black Americans were registered to vote, mostly because of voter intimidation, threats of violence, and disenfranchisement. After peaceful demonstrations, violent attacks on protestors, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and calls for voting rights legislation, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law.

According to History, the Voting Rights Act banned the use of literacy tests, which were routinely used to deny the vote to black Americans who didn't have access to high-quality education. It also gave the federal government more oversight over voter registration and local poll taxes so that states couldn't pass onerous voter restrictions based on race.

Where We Stand Today
Despite the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the 1800s and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black Americans still face barriers to using their right to vote in the twenty-first century. State and local governments across the U.S. have enacted legislation, such as voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and gerrymandering, that has led to continued voter disenfranchisement in minority communities, according to the Atlantic. To this day, there is still no constitutional, inalienable right to vote in America, according to The Week.

Racial disparities exist in nearly every part of our society, from healthcare to education. Black Americans still face housing discrimination and school segregation that is largely perpetuated through the wealth gap, racially restrictive deeds and covenants, and how property taxes are used to fund schools. In Boston, the racial wealth gap is particularly evident—the median net worth for black families in the city is $8 compared to $247,500 for white families, according to the Boston Globe.

Disparities also persist in the criminal justice system. A 2018 ABC News analysis of police arrests nationwide indicated that in 800 jurisdictions across the country, black people were five times more likely than white people to be arrested for the same offense. In 250 districts, black people were ten times more likely to be arrested. These disparities also persist in our nation's court systems. Another ABC News study found that black men serve prison terms that are on average 19.1% longer than white men sentenced for the same offense. When both offenders had violent crimes in their criminal record, black men's prison sentences were 20.4% longer than those of their white counterparts.

Where We're Going
As we commemorate Juneteenth, the holiday that marks black Americans' freedom from slavery, it's important to remember that although we've made progress, no one can truly be free in America until all have equal rights and are free from discrimination. Black people have had to fight for hundreds of years for the basic rights that so many of us take for granted today, whether it's the right to vote, buy property, or receive a quality education.

If America ever hopes to truly live up to the promises and ideals upon which our country was founded, we must keep fighting to address racial disparities and to achieve social and economic justice. The peaceful protests we've seen all across the country have pushed the conversation forward and, hopefully, put us on a solid path toward achieving true liberty and justice for all.

Celebrate black history and recognize the work that still needs to be done to achieve racial justice by signing the petition to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Racial Equity
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