The History of Policing in the US and Its Impact on Americans Today

Feature Picture
Several policemen in riot gear spray the camera crew walking by with a fire hose. Source: Yahoo Images

Policing in America has a long history, one that dates back to the founding of this country. Although it has always been a controversial issue, the recent instances of police brutality that have come to light along with the increasing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement have forced it back into the social and political limelight. The differences in beliefs are influenced by popular political outlets and political activists on both sides of the spectrum. However, when examining the history and the facts surrounding the creation and implementation of the policing system in the US, it is clear that policing also shares a racially biased history.

The History of Policing in America

The history of policing can be traced back to the days of slavery in colonial America. In the South, where slavery was central to the economy, slave patrols, responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their masters, was the first unofficial police in America. Considering how slavery itself was one of the most egregious treatments of mankind in human history, slave patrols were especially cruel in the ways they captured runaway slaves and punished them for their daring escapes. Slave rebellions were a constant threat to the economic status quo of the southern plantation owners, and slave patrols ensured that these owners were able to intimidate and punish any insurgencies or revolts. In return, these wealthy plantation owners protected the interests of the slave catchers. As a result, this practice created a social hierarchy between the wealthy landowners at the top, the slave patrols separating the wealthy from the poor, and the slaves who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.

To show that the history of policing as slave patrol is a known fact
A crowd of protesters advocating for the end of police brutality. One of the women in the crowd holds a that reads, “US police began as slave patrol.” Source: Yahoo Images

These slave patrols slowly morphed into policing units in charge of breaking up insurgencies that began to rise in the aftermath of the Civil War. When the Civil War ended, many colonists, especially Southerners, felt threatened by the population of freed African Americans, arguing that they would disrupt the social order. As a result, African American communities experienced an increase in violence committed against them in the form of police brutality. The Reconstruction Era, which came immediately after the Civil War,  was a racially charged environment, as the newly freed citizens attempted to live peacefully amongst their oppressors.

During the Reconstruction Era, cruelty was the policing style, and protecting the economic interests of the wealthy proved very beneficial to these units. Police were used as a way to provide a sense of security for the white communities, keeping the black communities intimidated and segregated from the white population. Additionally, reconstructing the South after the war would require a lot of free labor, and much of the reconstruction that took place was achieved through the enforced hard labor of the newly freed populace, who were shortly enslaved again, this time through the prison system.

Known as the Jim Crow laws, a number of legislations were passed in an attempt to keep the black and white communities segregated, and racist policies were put in place to target and imprison people of color. In part due to the loophole in the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, policing centered around rounding up and arresting African Americans for violating the racist Jim Crow Laws, denying them their fundamental rights as human beings. Racism was still rampant in the South and was especially tolerated under the prison system. Ironically, the loophole provided by the thirteenth amendment gave rise to today’s prison industrial complex.

These racist policies were further encouraged by the passing of the “separate but equal” verdict by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and they continued to target African Americans for simply existing. The Plessy v. Ferguson case argued that as long as both white communities and black communities were able to have access to the same resources, they could remain segregated. The verdict only emboldened and encouraged policing to incorporate racism into lawful practice. Unfortunately, this legal segregation lasted almost a hundred years, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Continuing their roles of breaking up insurgencies, policing during the Civil Rights Movement centered around riot control. As the Civil Rights Movement took place, inspiring hundreds of people to come together to demand justice, police were on the frontline of the opposing end, protecting the economic interests of America at the expense of human beings. Police used water hoses, police dogs, tear gas, and other crowd control measures to break up protests and peaceful sit-ins. The police would also brutally beat up and bruise the peaceful protesters, while others were incarcerated for daring to protest for their civil rights.

Policing since then has evolved to incorporate discriminatory practices, such as the “stop and frisk” policy – which empowers police to stop and search someone without a warrant if they have a reason to believe that individuals are doing something wrong – or the practice of racial profiling individuals to “fit” the description of a suspect the police can then target. Along with these practices, the war on drugs further aggravated the situation, granting the police the power to detain drug users by racially targeting people of color, and further enabling discrimination and harassment of marginalized communities. Today, the discrimination that is present in policies like stop and frisk, and racial profiling; and the war on drugs upholds the social hierarchy created during the times of slavery. These unethical policies continue to bolster the wealth and income inequality between wealthy communities and marginalized communities.

Additionally, the Revolving Door Phenomenon continues the historical practice of sabotaging marginalized communities. The Revolving Door Phenomenon refers to the fact that even after prisoners have served their time and get released, many of them end up back in prison. This is largely due to the many difficulties they face upon re-entering society, like finding employment, finding housing, securing transportation, and not being able to vote and be represented, to name a few. They can also face homelessness, and as a result, become victims of police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality is still rampant to this day with no accountability of the police. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which became a worldwide phenomenon during the summer of 2020, is attempting to bring an end to police brutality and the violent murders of unarmed African Americans committed by the police.

Police Brutality and Rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement

To show how popular the movement has become
Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles. July 1st, 2020; Source: Yahoo Images

The Black Lives Matter protests began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy that was murdered by a White man on Neighborhood Watch. The man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, facing no form of accountability for his actions. The hashtag movement gained further popularity when Michael Brown was murdered by a White officer, and yet again, no one faced any charges for the killing of a Black man. The Black Lives Matter movement encouraged people to record and report any instances of police brutality they witness, and soon, hundreds of civilians reported such instances on social media.

The murder of George Floyd was caught on camera, and this recording enraged the public. As a result, the Black Lives Matter Movement expanded nationwide, and over the years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. This movement brought attention to the frequent instances in which innocent African Americans were brutally murdered by the police. An NPR investigation revealed that since 2015, there have been 135 instances in which the police have murdered unarmed African Americans. They also found that of these 135 instances, 75% of the time, the officers were White. Another source places the total number of people who have died at the hands of police as high as 1,126, and that’s just in 2020. They allege that 96% of those deaths were a result of being shot. Reprehensibly, these instances continue to occur, as people such as Tameer Rice, Bryanna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Jamarion Robinson, Ronald Greene, and too many more have continued to face cruelty at the hands of the police.

Especially jarring is the cruel way in which Ronald Greene was murdered. The brutal death of Ronald Greene, an African American man who was beaten and shocked to death by a group of police officers, has been under investigation since 2019. The police falsely testified that he had died in a car crash, but body camera videos show the extent to which the police viciously killed Greene as he begged them to stop. Additional reports came back on Greene’s autopsy that further discredit the claims of the police that Greene sustained fatal injuries due to a car crash. Heartbreakingly, this is yet another instance of police brutality that was allowed to occur.

To show just a few of the names of the people who have been victims to police brutality
Among a group of protesters, one activist holds a sign with the names of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, three of the well-known victims of police brutality. Source: Yahoo Images

Accountability

One of the main reasons why police brutality continues to take place is due to the fact that the police face no real consequences for their actions. As has been the case too many times, police are reported to be found in compromising situations, leading to the inhumane treatment and in many instances, death of innocent people. Following those reports of human rights violations, it has also become common-place to find that those officers accused of brutality rarely get charged or punished for their behavior. They are generally held accountable only due to public outcry. Unfortunately, even then, accountability comes in the form of simply getting transferred to a different department. Too many instances over the past decade have highlighted the dangers of a militant police force without proper policies in place that hold responsible those that abuse the law. Policing leads to a power dynamic between communities and authorities, and in the wrong hands, without the proper measures of liability in place, can lead to an abuse of powers and people alike. As a result of the racial history that plagues America, the relationship between the police and marginalized communities is one that is (understandably), very fragile and filled with distrust.

Reform or abolish?

Many people have proposed policies to reform the police system in America. This can get pretty complicated, as police departments all across the country follow different rules and regulations and are state-funded entities. This can mean that implementation and enforcement of regulations can be a difficult task, requiring different entities for each state. Furthermore, there is not much data collected on policing misconducts, and the available data can be biased or lacking details. Additionally, many of the acts of police brutality are explained away using legal powers vested in the police, such as the ability to use force while conducting an arrest. The vague language of the policy allows the police to use excessive force and justify their actions in court. Moreover, police unions hold a tremendous amount of political power and influence and protect their officers from facing any real accountability. Even the attempts at limiting qualified immunity, (which protects government officials from civil lawsuits) have gotten nowhere, as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has yet to be passed in the Senate.

An info graph that showcases some of the misuses of the police budget and supports calls to defund the police.
An info graph that depicts some of the data that supports defunding the police. Source: Yahoo Images

As a result, cries to abolish the police have increased since the Black Live Matter protests of summer 2020. While police may be effective in situations where a crime has occurred, the abolitionists of today argue that police only complicate things in some instances, including interactions with people of color or when approaching people with mental illnesses or disabilities. Without being educated on systemic racism and the role of the police or having the proper training to care for people with mental or physical disabilities respectively, the police can make things worse, even if they are attempting to de-escalate the situation. The abolitionist approach is to restructure the entire policing system in order to divide the undertaking of community safety and security into various different institutions that are tasked with protecting the human rights of individuals. This enables the option of having other agencies in place aimed at solving community issues and nurturing a relationship with people within the community, making it more accessible and reliable for the community members to ask for assistance. Doing so could eliminate the oppressive climate brought on by the social hierarchy that has been ever-present in policing throughout American history. By reshaping society and its structures, we can ensure that the needs of the people in society are met, while preserving their fundamental human rights.

 

 

“Pursuing Justice with Love and Power”: A Conversation with Brittany Packett Cunningham

a piece of street art from a George Floyd protest
Justice and Love. Source: Renoir Gaither. Creative Commons.

On Tuesday April 6th, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed acclaimed author and activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham to speak. Brittany facilitated a conversation entitled “Pursuing Justice with Love and Power.”  The discussion was moderated by IHR graduate assistant Jaylah Cosby and IHR intern Faiza Mawani.

Brittany began with discussing her inspiration for the phrase “love and power.” The phrase was actually borrowed from a lesser known piece of writing by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It can be utilized in word format or in a series of emojis: the heart emoji to represent love and the fist emoji to represent power. Love and power are conceived as two opposites. For example, love is perceived as soft whereas power is perceived as intense. However, Brittany emphasizes the importance of the two together. Our power can be informed with our love. This can be seen in a political landscape with loving policies that empower people where they are.

Brittany then pivots the conversation to discuss love and power in the context of community building. Community building begins first by being in and participating in the community. She describes 2014 as a pivotal turning point in American history and in her personal history. With 2014 came the protests in Ferguson where young people protected the American people’s right to protest. Communities showed their love for themselves and for others by standing up to the injustices in local, national, and international communities. Love is the root of protests. Brittany states, “We don’t need to know the people who have died by police violence to love them.” To actualize what love looks like, it is required to be in community with people.

When asked about whether the term “community” can mean an integrated community or a homogenous community, Brittany confirmed that both are necessary in making sense of our racial identity in the world. Affinity spaces allow for safety and comfort in what we know and understand. Finding community in those affinity spaces often provides the opportunity to find community in multicultural spaces. While working towards that multicultural community can be difficult and uncomfortable, that safe space from the homogenous group is still there at the end of the day. In answering this question, Brittany emphasizes the need to push for integrated spaces while also understanding the simultaneous need for affinity spaces.

In the time of COVID-19, digitalization has become ever more present in all spaces an advocacy is no exception. Brittany acknowledges how digital spaces have somehow made it easier to work as an activist. She describes digitalization as another tool in the toolbox that works toward justice. It changes the way people can view work, life, and accessibility. However, the digitalization of life and work has also allowed misinformation to flourish. Brittany’s example of the dangers of misinformation is with voter suppression. The most effective form of voter suppression is to convince voters to stay home by encouraging them to believe that their vote doesn’t count. Similarly, Brittany warns against performative digital advocacy. If an Instagram post is being created with the sole purpose of gaining followers, this is an example of performative digital advocacy. Instead, advocacy posts should encourage action and therefore be productive. Most importantly, digital advocacy must amplify the folks most affected by the issue whenever possible.

A question from the audience inspired Brittany to discuss the intersection between religious faith and social justice. In response, Brittany stated, “I identify as political not in spite of my faith but because of it.” Brittany speaks from the perspective of a Christian and highlighted many of the issues modern Christianity has.

The conversation began to orient towards the Derek Chauvin case, which was ongoing at the time of the event, and policing in the United States. Brittany admitted to not watching the trial but looking at the coverage after the fact. Her primary reason for doing so is an understanding that nothing in the Derek Chauvin trial will bring back George Floyd. She highlights the important difference between justice and accountability in this section of the conversation. Justice would be an anonymous, alive, George Floyd sitting with his family and friends and living his life. That will never happen due to the actions of Derek Chauvin. However, Chauvin can be held accountable for his actions. When discussing the trial, Brittany states how she hopes that from the spectacle that is the trial, people are able to understand that police officers should never be expected or allowed to be the judge, jury, and executioner.

Brittany’s perspective on policing in the United States is that it needs to cease to exist how it is. She cites the “abolitionist tradition” of the United States. The people who fought against the abolition of slavery often argued the economics of slavery and the reliance the United States had on it, a similar argument we see occurring now when discussing police systems. Brittany asks the audience that if reimagining what public safety looks life scares you, to ask yourself where you would have stood on the abolition of slavery. “The safest communities,” Brittany states, “are not those with the most cops, both those with the most resources. Period.”

Brittany ended the conversation with advice on how to “get on the train” of activism. She says that the most important things to do are to listen, learn, and act but acknowledges that the temptation in activism is to default to whichever of those three is your are comfortable with, which is often “learn.” Brittany explains that it is easy to fall into the trap of sitting in the corner of your house, reading the literature and listening the people but never exiting to help build the communities and act. Learning is only half of the work. With such a digitalized world, there is an opportunity to learn and listen from the people we are the least like. Brittany advises to write down what gives you a privilege and an advantage in the world and follow the people who do not have your privileges. She also advises to act locally, highlighting the fact that you do not have to travel to another place to be an activist. “Link up with the organizations in your community,” Brittany advises, “and that is how we get to work.”

Why Feminism Needs To Be An Anti-Racist Movement

March 8th was International Women’s Day. When I woke up that morning and started scrolling through Instagram, I saw all my friends and family recognizing the burdens that women face and celebrating their strength and existence. Then, I saw a post about Meghan Markle, a Black woman who is also the Duchess of Sussex, and the very racist comments that have surfaced after her interview with Oprah. A week later, on March 13, was the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder. Breonna Taylor’s family still hasn’t received justice for her murder. The sexist and racist language surrounding Taylor’s death was despicable. Last week in a mass shooting, six Asian American women were killed directly related to the anti-Asian rhetoric that’s been happening since the emergence of COVID-19 and the racism that’s been normalized towards Asian communities. The irony of the situation seemed inescapable in light of the celebratory month. Women are supposed to be uplifting other women, especially Black women. Malcolm X said that, “The most unprotected person in America is the Black Woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman,” and the past year has shown us that. Just like it’s shown us that it’s all women of color whose needs will be ignored and whose bodies will be violated. As a fellow woman of color and a feminist, I know I exist at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression: white supremacy and patriarchy. I believe that we can’t be feminist, unless we are also antiracist.

Source: Informed Images (flickr.com)

Feminist Theory

Mainstream feminist theory has been criticized for centering the needs of white women and largely ignoring the needs of women of color, or assuming that their needs are the same. This has led to White women speaking on behalf of all women, as if it’s a situation of one size fits all. It’s not. Similar to how the reproductive justice movement became based on the needs of middle-class white women, the idea of “sisterhood” within the feminist movement also catered to similar populations. Due to this, it’s not surprising that even though we have, Black, Indigenous, Mexican, and Asian feminists, their platforms and voices are often ignored and suppressed in preference to white women. Even when gender and race oppression are acknowledged and discussed, information pertaining to gender oppression is only highlighted from the perspective of white women. Racial oppression and systems of resistance are most often told from the perspective of men of color, further negating the very specific experiences of women of color.

Black women and women of color are not only told that they belong to lesser genders, but that they are of lesser races. The experiences of white women who have experienced oppression is unlike the experiences of women of color. There is no parallel, because the intersectionality of their identities compound on each other to equate a sum that is greater than oppression from any individual source. These experiences of discrimination are attributed to race, gender, class, or all three. Not only are women of color experiencing this unique combination, but they are also aware that they are being marginalized from multiple avenues; avenues that don’t oppress white women or other men of color.

Source: Yahoo Images (brewminate.com). Portrait of Maria Stewart-the first Black feminist abolitionist.

The anti-racism movement has been far more socio-politically active than the feminist movement. Black women were key figures during the abolitionist movement, fighting for womanhood denied to them as enslaved persons. While Black men were in the media spotlight, it was Black women who were running the show from behind the scenes of the civil rights era from raising funds, community and grassroots organizing, and mobilizing followers. As such they were key activists for antiracism, allowing them to secure their roles in the gender inequality movement. But the work of these Black women in the civil rights movement has been ignored and forgotten, in leu of men who often held sexist beliefs on gender norms and equality.

Feminism as an Antiracist Movement

Feminism needs to be an antiracist movement, because there is a need for a political movement that highlights the intersection of race and gender oppression. Yes, white women have been mistreated. Yes, they have faced oppression, but it’s important to recognize that for women of color, this discrimination and mistreatment is doubled and quadrupled. If we can free Black women, dismantle the patriarchy, and white supremacy, all women will be free. Only when we address white supremacy and systems of violence that benefit the white man, can we truly start to change the other related systems of power and oppression.

How can you help?

  • Continue to raise awareness and fight for Breonna Taylor.
  • Listen to the experiences of Black women and women of color around you. Come from a place of empathy. White women need to decenter and rid of themselves of the white savior complex. Their activism needs to happen because it’s the right thing to do.
  • Address the need for intersectionality when talking about race and feminism.

The Most Disrespected: What does no Justice for Breonna Taylor say about the Treatment of Black Women in America?

Used to show Black Lives Matter protest
Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, became a worldwide movement in the late spring of 2020. Here is an image captured of a protest in Amsterdam. (SOURCE: Creative Commons)

On May 22, 1962, Civil Rights Leader Malcom X spoke in front of a crowd of Black Americans in Los Angeles. Malcolm X was a fiery and passionate orator, and his words have become an inspiration for a new generation of social justice advocates and human rights workers (Yahoo!). On that fateful day, Malcolm X said something that I believe is more poignant now than ever before.

The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.

        The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.

              The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Breonna Taylor was a twenty-six-year-old EMT from Louisville, Kentucky. In March of 2020, three officers from the Louisville Police Department botched a raid on her apartment. After Taylor’s boyfriend responded to the no-knock warrant with a defensive shot, the officers shot more than thirty rounds into the unit, killing Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her bed (The New Yorker). Protests broke out across the nation over the spring and summer following the death of Breonna Taylor. The pressure from the nationwide protests did lead to the adoption of Breonna’s Law by the Louisville Metro Council, outlawing the use of no-knock warrants (Stanford Law School). For many protestors, this was one step forward in achieving the types of reform that would help prevent senseless violence from occurring in police-citizen interactions. The protestors held their breath across the nation as Kentucky’s attorney general Daniel Cameron delivered the verdict on a grand jury’s indictment of the three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.

September 23, 2020: An Outpouring of Anger and Grief

On Wednesday, September 23, 2020, Attorney General Daniel Cameron delivered the decision of the grand jury. No indictments would be made specifically related to Breonna Taylor’s death. Officer Brett Hankison of the Louisville Police Department was indicted for “wanton endangerment” because of his firing his weapon without any clear target, leading to reckless damage to neighboring apartments in the complex (New York Times). Just minutes after the indictment was read, the news became the number one trend on Twitter. Protestors and activists grieved that justice was never served for the death of a young medical worker. Protests broke out across the nation once again. Celebrities and politicians shared their outrage for how the case was handled by the grand jury and the attorney general. A viral image of a protest sign that read “A cop shot a Black woman and was only charged for the shots missed” was shared by international pop star Rihanna, and the post has garnered over 400,000 likes (Twitter).

Black Women Deserve Dignity

As a junior in college studying anthropology and political science, I was deeply disturbed by the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of unnecessary police violence, and spent a large part of my summer protesting with and researching the Black Lives Matter movement. At the very core of the movement is an idea that I have found to also be the core of human rights work and advocacy – the concept of human dignity. According to The Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity, human dignity can be defined as “the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings” (CBHD). This concept has been extremely influential in shaping the human rights movement and the way our current political and justice systems work in theory. The concept of human dignity was used by Enlightenment thinkers to quantify the idea of “inalienable rights”, an idea that was essential to the foundation of the United States.

All human beings inherently deserve dignity. This is the basis for our legal systems, our ideas about morality, and the way we conduct ourselves day to day. For the vibrant activist community in the United States, it’s clear that Breonna was deprived of her dignity, and is one of many Black women who face institutional violence day to day.

Even activists had trouble keeping the news of Breonna Taylor from turning into entertainment. According to Mashable, Breonna Taylor’s death had much of its significance taken away as social media users on Twitter “repeated the phrase in hopes of spreading awareness and gaining visibility”, but ultimately “Taylor’s death became an insensitive meme” as “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” turned into a way for content creators to gain relevance and attention, similarly to “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” was a buzz phrase earlier in the year (Mashable). This type of faux-activism did nothing to bring Breonna Taylor justice, and instead reminded countless black activists of the violence people of color face in America on a day to day basis. Twitter user @daniellecanyell said it perhaps better than anyone else, writing on June 23 that “breonna taylor’s death being commodified into a meme is really enough to tell me that y’all do not actually value the personhood of black women” (Mashable). The commercialization of the suffering of Black women and people of color in general is a clear symptom of the denial of human dignity that Black women face.

 

Women at a protest -shows POC women activists
Women of color have led and organized many of the thousands of protests that have taken place world wide. Shown here are a group of women protesting for Black Lives Matter. (SOURCE : Creative Commons)

Where Do We Go from Here?

For Breonna Taylor, the truth may still come out. On September 28, 2020, news broke that an anonymous member of the grand jury involved in Breonna Taylor’s case was suing for the release of the secret footage of the proceedings, and Kentucky’s attorney general agreed (AL.com). Uncovering the truth about this case will not bring Breonna Taylor back, but it may provide healing for her family and allow her to rest in more dignity and peace than she was given alive.

For many activists nationwide, the grand jury’s decision reignited passion in fighting the systemic injustice Black people face in America. The response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others was labelled by the Harvard Carr Center as perhaps “the largest movement in US history” (Harvard). Research done by the Crowd Sourcing Consortium revealed in July that anywhere from fifteen million and twenty-six million Americans have participated in protests nationwide (Harvard). This number has absolutely increased in the months that have followed, as protests picked up again after the grand jury’s decision was read on September 23. The Black Lives Matter movement is a movement that will define Generation Z, and it’s push for positive reforms in our institutions will be heard, even if it is a long and uphill battle.

Rest in power, Breonna.

 

 

 

 

 

Juneteenth: Celebrating the Past, Fighting for a Better Future

Juneteenth in yellow, black, red and green with black power fist
Source: Yahoo Images

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

What is Juneteenth?

Celebrated on June 19th, Juneteenth commemorates the official end of slavery. Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the U.S. government made little effort to enforce the executive order, allowing Texas and other Southern states to uphold the institution of slavery for two and a half years after it was declared illegal. It was not until Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that the news of freedom and the end of the Civil War reached the enslaved people there. Alternatively called “Freedom Day,” “Emancipation Day,” and “Cel-Liberation Day,” African Americans have celebrated Juneteenth since the late 1800s.

History

In the decades following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Juneteenth celebrations grew in size and popularity. Some formerly enslaved men and women and their descendants made pilgrimages back to Galveston to celebrate the holiday. Early celebrations often included a ritual in which revelers tossed ragged garments that enslaved people would have been forced to wear into the river and adorned themselves in fancy clothes taken from their former plantations. In 1872, a group of African-Americans ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land in Houston and created Emancipation Park as a place to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The festivities typically involved fishing, barbecue, rodeos, baseball, and prayer services.

In the early 1900s, Juneteenth celebrations declined, as White employers did not recognize the holiday and would not let Black people off work if the holiday fell during the work week. Educational text books for students marked the official end of slavery as January 1, 1863, without mentioning its continuance through the end of the war. American Independence Day was celebrated on July 4, and Juneteenth went largely under the radar. Celebrations were revived in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and cities across the country reinstated the festivities. Through the tireless efforts of Al Edwards, an African-American state legislator, Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. Other states are following his lead. In fact, 45 states and the District of Columbia have either made Juneteenth a state holiday or an official day of observance; however, it is not yet a national holiday. This year, several corporations, including Target, Twitter, Nike, and the NFL have announced that June 19 will be a paid holiday for their employees.

Protest sign reads "End White Silence. Black Lives Matter"
Source: Creative Commons

The Struggle Continues

As we celebrate the official end of institutionalized slavery, it is important to remember that the struggle for true freedom and equality for African-Americans is far from over. As the country is waking up to the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, Juneteenth celebrations are expected to be particularly festive and well-attended this year. Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and countless other victims of anti-Black violence, there is a renewed sense of urgency and activism around the Black Lives Matter movement. Massive protests are happening all over the country with hundreds of thousands of Americans demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality. In order to truly understand and participate in Juneteenth celebrations, it is important to remember the horrors of slavery, the extreme violence inflicted on Black people in the years following liberation, and how these legacies continue to plague our society. In anticipation of Juneteenth, the Equal Justice Initiative has released a new report – Reconstruction in America – describing the various ways in which White people and the State invented new forms of slavery, perpetuated anti-Black sentiment and justified violence and oppression. As Bryan Stevenson aptly reminds us, “Slavery did not end in 1865, it just evolved.” Today, Black Americans still do not enjoy the same freedoms and rights as White people, as they continue to experience lynching, police brutality, mass incarceration, and unequal justice disproportionately to their White counterparts.

While Juneteenth in years past has focused on celebrating the advances that Black people have made in the United States, this year is expected to center around a call to action. For White people who want to show their support, this includes showing up for the causes of anti-racism and equal justice, understanding the structural and institutional underpinnings of white supremacy and white superiority, exploring their own complicity in upholding a racist social order, and using their privilege and agency to take actionable steps to dismantle racism, both in their personal lives and on an policy level.

History is calling the future from the streets of protest.

What choice will we make?

What world will we create?

What will we be?

There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist”

– Ibram X. Kendi

To learn how to build an anti-racist world, watch Ibram X. Kendi’s inspiring TED talk.

 

Marching Ardor

by Mary Johnson- Butterworth

When someone close to me questioned the importance of my marching with White Birminghamians For Black Lives, I wrote this poem as a response.  I proudly carry a sign, “White Silence Breeds Injustice,” every Friday from 4:30-6:30 at Kelly Ingram Park.  Everyone is welcome.

a group photo of White Birminghamians for Black Lives
White Birminghamians for Black Lives. Source: White Birminghamians for Black Lives Facebook Page. Used with permission

“WHITE SILENCE BREEDS INJUSTICE,”

Words I hold in my hands

For those whose hands are shackled

Or too full with work

And growing healthy babies.

Can our voices speak as theirs

Or do we dilute their words?

 

Can I ally with Dreamers,

Insulated by my birthright?

Can I represent the poor

With no balance on my Visa?

Can I fight for women’s rights

And parent three white males?

 

What makes a marcher relevant?

What deems a march impactful?

Pussy hats and Trump attacks

And “Free Melania” placards?

If I echo, “Me Too,” and state,

“No Hate, No Fear,”

Are these the stuff of change?

 

If we few insist on marching,

Does our weekly selfie morph

Into a media laughingstock?

Distractors, subtractors from the core?

Interlopers, intruders on could-be passion?

Transformative, informative,

Or just subnormative?

 

Can we convey, “Black Lives Matter”

As a smattering of whites?

Are we a joke gone viral

In our efforts to protest

For those we cannot protect?

Can we sense Black pain

Enough to hail its power

Over all Americans?

 

When two or three are gathered

In the name of Social Justice,

Do we frustrate the huddled masses

Or does good emanate from the act?

“Yes,” I say ground is gained

By our meager footsteps.

Our rallying imprimatur leaves

Permanence in its wake,

For white silence breeds injustice.

 

Mary Johnson-Butterworth, age 69, has been a social justice activist most of her adult life.  She has facilitated social justice workshops for middle and high school students throughout the Birmingham area and beyond with the YWCA of Central Alabama, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the National Coalition Building Institute, and YouthServe.  Mary has also been on staff at a residential YWCA diversity camp, Anytown Alabama, for 22 years and has facilitated trainings for corporate entities, Leadership Birmingham, and Project Corporate Leadership.  She has recently discovered the power of poetry to transform her own life and the lives of impacted listeners.