The Meaning of Juneteenth is Beyond Celebration

Chase Stevens / Las Vegas Review-Journal
Demetrius Freeman / The New York Times

“In one of his first prominent speeches, during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the glory of America, with all its faults.” At the March on Washington, King described not just a dream but “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” Before finishing, he recited the first seven lines of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” ending with “Let freedom ring!”A year-and-a-half later, marchers from Selma to Montgomery carried American flags. Segregationist hecklers along the route held up Confederate flags. Within six months, Lyndon Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act.”

AP Archives

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Mike McCarn / AP
Michael Reaves / Getty
Oklahoma Historical Society
Rob Carr / AP
Library of Congress

But the “peculiar institution,” as Southerners came to call it, like all human institutions should not be oversimplified. While there were cruel masters who maimed or even killed their slaves (although killing and maiming were against the law in every state), there were also kind and generous owners. The institution was as complex as the people involved. Though most slaves were whipped at some point in their lives, a few never felt the lash. Nor did all slaves work in the fields. Some were house servants or skilled artisans. Many may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.

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