By Boreta Singleton, Mercy Associate
Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, is the commemoration of the day when the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in September 1862, finally made its way to Texas. Two and a half years elapsed before the enslaved people in that state learned that they were free.
We are a long way from 1865.
But as an African American, when I see the great number of ills in our society that impact us negatively, I still struggle with the reality of freedom. Is it all bleak? No, there have certainly been achievements. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the discriminatory practices preventing people of color from voting. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the high school attainment gap between Blacks and whites is shrinking significantly, with 87.9 percent of those who identify as Black or African American having completed high school in 2019, compared to the national average of 90.1 percent. Those figures were 7 percent and 24 percent, respectively, in 1940.
But as we take stock today of the state of the nation, our freedom does not seem as assured as it may have on that first Juneteenth Day. Some deny the history of racism in this country and claim that events clearly documented—such as lynchings and the lack of equal rights in the workplace and in schools—are not worthy of a high school history or civics course.
It truly seems that African Americans in the United States are not free today to practice even the most innocent of pursuits, such as listening to music or eating ice cream, without the threat of the police being called and the resulting encounter turning into an altercation that leads to arrest and even death. It was, after all, the filmed May 2020 murder of George Floyd under a Minneapolis policeman’s knee that subsequently led to the largest anti-racism protests in this country in half a century and drew renewed attention to police violence against people of color.
In April 2021, using data from the research group Mapping Police Violence, Newsweek reported that of the 966 police killings since Floyd’s death, Black people accounted for 18.6 percent while only making up 13 percent of the general population; white people made up 37 percent of those deaths while making up 76.3 percent of the population. Mapping Police Violence reports that Black people are three times as likely to be killed by police as white people and 1.3 times as likely to be unarmed, and that most police killings of Black people begin with low-level offenses, traffic stops, mental health checks and domestic disturbance complaints.
According to the Pew Research Foundation in May 2020, while the incarceration rate of Black Americans had fallen by 34 percent since 2006, there were still 1,501 Black people incarcerated per 100,000 Black adults, as compared to 268 whites per 100,000 white adults.
Another freedom denied, and more are threatened.
By mid-May of this year, at least 14 states had enacted 22 laws that restrict access to the vote. The Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks restrictive voting bills, reports that as of this writing, nearly 61 bills to restrict voting rights are moving through 18 state legislatures. At least 389 restrictive bills have been introduced in 48 state legislatures since the 2020 election. These changes would most often affect people of color, making it harder for them to exercise their right to vote. The For the People Act, which would block many of these state laws from taking effect, has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and is awaiting action in the Senate.
Despite these bleak realities, I am called by my faith to have hope. In an interview with America Media on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, Fr. Bryan Massingale, senior ethics fellow at Fordham University’s Center for Ethics Education, said, “As a person of faith, I have to believe in the possibility of conversion. Conversion is a religious way of saying that reality is not closed; there’s always room for the Spirit to work.”
The Holy Spirit is always inviting us to freedom. So I must ask myself, what areas in my own life are lacking freedom? How do I live in a manner that enables me to act for justice while remembering that I must have the Christian virtue of hope? Even when things seem hopeless, I am called by God’s Spirit to continue the journey for racial justice.
I am reminded of the words of the late Rep. John Lewis: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” May getting into “good trouble” bring us the freedom and hope that my ancestors experienced on that first Juneteenth.