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Juneteenth Celebrates Emancipation, But More Black Men Are Incarcerated Than Were Enslaved

Emancipation? There are more blacks in prison or jail, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850.

If you paid attention in history class, you know that on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Unfortunately, enslaved Africans in Texas did not get the memo. They continued to toil under state sanctioned white domination for another two years. But on June 19, 1865, 2,000 Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that these enslaved Africans were now "free." These newly emancipated Africans celebrated joyfully in what would evolve into the annual festival known as "Juneteenth."

This year's Juneteenth takes place as Americans commemorate not only the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but the beginning of a series of 50th anniversaries related to the civil rights revolution. All of this is unfolding as a black man—after being elected a second time—occupies the office once held by Lincoln. This juxtaposition of historical legacies and present realities makes this Juneteeth a particularly poignant time to contemplate what emancipation has meant and means today for black Americans.

A dictionary definition of emancipation reads, "Freeing someone from the control of another." While the Emancipation Proclamation could be fairly viewed as meeting this definition, history tells us that things were not so simple. Africans in America and their descendents continued to be controlled in various ways, whether through the system of laws that would become known as Jim Crow, or the systematic domestic terrorism of the Klan and its enablers. A particularly heinous form of state-sanctioned control was the criminalization of blackness under the guise of "public safety."

Stephen Spielberg's film Lincoln dramatizes the machinations involved in the passing of the 13th Amendment and the political leadership of our 16th President in seeing it done. While this amendment can be read as officially ending slavery in the United States, it included some "fine print." Section one of the 13th Amendment states:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. (emphasis mine)


If the architects of the 13th Amendment really wanted to abolish slavery, why make an exception for criminal convictions? Given that slavery at that time was associated in the American imagination with being black, it's fair to believe its authors had black people in mind when they included this language in the amendment.

Whatever their intent, rationalizing slavery in the case of criminality created a grim legacy that haunts black Americans to this day. In his documentary, Slavery by another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon chronicles how slavery continued well into the 20th Century for those convicted of "crime." These crimes could include such profound threats to public safety as speaking too loudly in the presence of a white woman, for which offenders could find themselves sentenced to work in labor camps or chain gangs for decades.

Just as slavery, by whatever name, eventually gave way to Jim Crow, Jim Crow has been replaced with the "New Jim Crow." Legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains that the New Jim Crow is the latest version of a racial caste system that keeps black Americans convicted of crime, locked up, and locked out of the benefits of full citizenship. This system emerged in the decades following the civil rights revolution, driven largely by the War on Drugs.

I wonder what those newly emancipated Africans in 1865 Texas would think if they could travel through time to 2013? What would they make of a supposedly post-Emancipation America where there are more blacks in prison or jail, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850? Or that more black men are legally denied the right to vote because of felon disenfranchisement laws, than in 1870, when the 15th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that deny the right to vote on the basis of race? How would they make sense of the fact that such things remain true even 50 years after many of their descendents faced bullets, bombs, water hoses, and dogs to secure civil rights that remained unprotected after the Civil War? A black felon living today can rightly ask how we can celebrate "emancipation" under such circumstances.

I am reminded of the words of Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852 about a more widely recognized celebration of American "liberty."

Fellow-citizens; above your… tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.


Perhaps Juneteeth 2013 could be an opportunity to recognize that emancipation is a process, not a proclamation. As we gather to mark the occasion, we could seize it as a time not only of remembrance but renewed commitment and mobilization to carry the process of emancipation forward.

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

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