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The spirit of Juneteenth lives on in national uprising for black emancipation

The spirit of Juneteenth lives on in national uprising for black emancipation
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On June 19, 1865, now known as Juneteenth, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Union troops finally made it to Texas to enforce the end of slavery there, the last place still enslaving black people in the United States. This year, we commemorate Juneteenth against the backdrop of a global health pandemic, an economic crisis and mass protests against the same systemic racism that enslaved black people.

Aptly described by The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II, Juneteenth observances seem more relevant than ever: “It is both a second Independence Day and a reminder of ongoing oppression and continuing forms of racism. It is a memorial to the dead and a remonstrance to those who killed them. It is a clear articulation of the fact that America can never be free until her people are free, and a celebration of the people who have worked to make it so.” Juneteenth and the spirit it evokes is a fitting symbol for the present moment — a day to reflect on the collective trauma and violence of the past, to take stock of and celebrate the progress we’ve made toward black emancipation, and to refocus our attention on the change still needed and work that lies ahead. 

From slavery to the Jim Crow South to today’s over-policing, mass incarceration and attacks on voting rights, it’s easy to trace the history of violence against black bodies in the United States. Our calls for an end to state-sanctioned violence against blacks and the demand for equal justice under the law continue to motivate the work of racial justice activists and remain central to the Black Lives Matter movement. The recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks are new manifestations in a long history of police brutality. 

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This is why we march!

Hundreds of thousands of people in every state, and in countries across the world, have taken to the streets after watching Floyd’s 8-minute, 46-second excruciating death. Although for decades we have raised our voices again and again about the continued racial brutality directed at our fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and friends, the video of this strong black man calling for his mother as we watched his life ebb away has galvanized people of all races, ages and experiences to finally see, even for a brief time, the lived experience of many black families.

This is why we protest!

We have the power to elect a new generation of leaders who emerge from the hope of this historic moment. This month, Ella Jones became the first African-American elected mayor in Ferguson, Mo. The seeds for her election were planted six years ago, when people took to the streets after police killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Those protests transformed Ferguson’s government, resulting in a more diverse police force and city council before voters, ultimately, elected a black woman mayor. 

Our votes also secured the leadership of black women mayors across the country who have risen to national prominence and praise for leading with the courage, integrity and strength required to meet the dual crises of this moment. Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, San Francisco’s London Breed, Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot and other black women are successfully leading large cities into recovery from COVID-19 while handling massive protests against police violence. 

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This is why we vote!

Juneteenth brings a historic lens to the injustices we continue to face and are fighting to dismantle today, reminding us that change never comes easy and progress is slow. But, importantly, it also reminds us that the moral arc of the universe is long and that it can bend toward justice. It inspires us to keep marching, keep protesting, keep voting. 

We must — and we will — fight on, with black women on the front lines, making our voices heard and our demands known: for justice, safety, equity, empowerment, bodily autonomy and recognition of our full personhood. We fight for all the little girls and boys in our families, in our communities, in our world. We fight for a safer, more just future.

Marcela Howell is the founder and president of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. Follow her on Twitter at @BlackWomensRJ.