Thousands of Americans demand racial justice at Juneteenth observances

ATLANTA (REUTERS) – Thousands gathered in US cities on Friday (June 19) to mark Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery that carries special resonance this year after a wave of protests and national soul-searching about the country’s legacy of racial injustice.

With most formal Juneteenth events cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, activists instead organised street marches and “car caravans” to give people a way to vent their anger and show their solidarity.

People carry an empty symbolic casket draped with the US flag during a Juneteenth march in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
People carry an empty symbolic casket draped with the US flag during a Juneteenth march in Tulsa, Oklahoma.PHOTO: AFP

Despite the limitations, Juneteenth – an annual celebration of the emancipation of slaves a century and a half ago – holds particular meaning this year. It comes on the heels of an avalanche of protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes.

In New York City, a few hundred protesters mostly wearing masks due to the coronavirus, gathered outside the Brooklyn Museum holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Say their names.”

“It just means remembering my ancestors because we definitely have fought for so long, and we’re still fighting the battle that our ancestors have been fighting,” said Nia White, 17, a high school graduate and march organiser.

One of the biggest marches was in Atlanta where emotions were running high after Rayshard Brooks, an African American, was fatally shot in the back by a white policeman in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. The police officer was terminated by the department and charged with murder.

Instead of an annual Juneteenth parade and music festival, Atlantans marked the occasion with a march to Centennial Olympic Park that organisers hoped would have a spiritual, rather than celebratory, tone.

“Join us in decrying racism in every form, and declaring unity from the church across lines of race, class, denomination, and culture,” OneRace, an ecumenical group that organised the march, said in a statement.

In Texas, where Juneteenth originated, Lucy Bremond oversees what is believed to be the oldest public celebration of the occasion each year in Houston’s Emancipation Park, located in the Third Ward area where Floyd spent most of his life.

This year a gathering that typically draws some 6,000 people to the park, purchased by freed slaves in 1872 to hold a Juneteenth celebration, will be replaced with a virtual observance.

“There are a lot of people who did not even know Juneteenth existed until these past few weeks,” Bremond said.

Juneteenth, a blend of June and 19th, commemorates the US abolition of slavery under President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, belatedly announced by a Union army in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, after the Civil War ended.

Texas officially made it a holiday in 1980, and 45 more states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit.

This year, a number of a major companies declared June 19, also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, a paid holiday for employees.

On the West Coast, union dockworkers at nearly 30 ports planned to mark the occasion by staging a one-day strike.

But much of the focus of the 155th annual observance will take place on social media, with online lectures, discussion groups and virtual breakfasts, to help safeguard minority communities especially hard hit by the pandemic.

“We have been training our staff on how to use technology to present their events virtually and online,” said Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

Many chapters have also planned “car caravans”: slow-speed processions of motorists honking horns and waving their arms as they wend their way through neighborhoods, Williams said.

A focal point of Juneteenth observances this year is likely to be Tulsa. President Donald Trump is traveling to the Oklahoma city’s first campaign rally in three months, originally scheduled for Friday but moved to Saturday after an outcry.

Critics said staging the rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, the scene of a notorious massacre of African Americans by white mobs in 1921, showed a profound lack of sensitivity to the city’s history, not to mention disregard for public health concerns.

Tens of thousands of supporters will jam into a sports arena for the event despite the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Juneteenth organisers were planning an outdoor event expected to draw tens of thousands on Friday, local media reported.

Byron Miller, Juneteenth commissioner for San Antonio, Texas, said he has long felt compelled to make the celebration“palatable” to white people by emphasising advances in racial harmony, rather than dwelling on centuries of abuses endured by African Americans.

But Floyd’s death has left him newly embittered.

“The times we’re living now have forced many of us to acknowledge that maybe slavery has never ended, in some fashion or another,” he said.

Lucy Bremond saw the potential for the holiday to be a balm for racial wounds, saying, “I’m hopeful that Juneteenth will serve as a stabilising influence for the chaos that we’ve been seeing in the streets.”

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