Juneteenth: A beacon in the fight against racial injustice

By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, has been celebrated by Black people in the United States since the 19th century. The day commemorates the event of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers under General Gordon Granger brought the news to Black people in Galveston, Texas, that President Lincoln had emancipated enslaved people in the Confederate South over two years earlier.

Now President Biden has signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Approval of the bill was unanimous in the Senate but opposed by 14 white House members. Black leaders, on the other hand, lauded the bill but pointed out that far more needs to be done to redress the injustices that the Black community has suffered from the time of slavery to today.

Community organizer Kimberly Holmes-Ross, who helped make her home city of Evanston, Ill., the first U.S. city to pay reparations to Black people told the Associated Press that she was happy about the new federal holiday but would have liked Congress to first rule on anti-lynching legislation or protections for voters, whose rights are under attack in a number of states. “I am not super-stoked only because all of the other things that are still going on,” she said. “You haven’t addressed what we really need to talk about.”

An example of the deaf ear that government agencies turn toward the rights of Blacks and other oppressed people took place almost simultaneously with Biden’s signing ceremony, when the reactionary U.S. Supreme Court announced that it had rejected a lawsuit concerning modern-day slavery. The suit, brought by six African men, sought damages under the terms of the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 in regard to enslaved children in Africa who are kidnapped and forced to work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. However, the Court ruled that only individuals, not corporations (in this case, Nestle and Cargill), are liable for prosecution under the law.

History shows that the results of the victory of June 19, 1865, were very fleeting for Black people in Texas and throughout the United States. Little more than a decade after the 13th Amendment had been ratified—which made slavery unlawful—conditions that were reminiscent of slavery had been reinstated throughout the South. Jim Crow segregation and terror reigned in the former Confederacy for almost a century after that.

For most of that time, the U.S. political establishment and the media ignored the apartheid-like police states that the Democratic Party managed for the Southern white ruling class. They covered up for the lynch mobs, chain gangs, and cop brutality that were utilized to keep Blacks “in their place” in perpetual poverty, and to hold back the struggle for their rights. The so-called Old South was reborn and romanticized in popular literature and in Hollywood; the parasitic white aristocracy was repainted as a people who lived graciously while served by happy, faithful, and adoring Black underlings. Confederate soldiers were portrayed in movies and TV as free spirits, engaged in an admirable but doomed rebellion against the Yankee oppressors and their sneaking carpetbagger allies.

Not untypically, the whites-only high school that I attended in Texas, during the final years of open systemic discrimination, used the Confederate stars and bars as its symbol. Our football team was called the “Rebels.” But the “Rebel” image was used to impose a mindless conformity on white Texans, in which everyday things such as going to a restaurant where Black diners were forced to enter by the kitchen door and eat while sitting on crates in the back alley were supposed to be accepted as part of the natural order. As it happened, of course, the massive Black rebellion of the 1950s and ’60s pressed on and eventually brought an end to legal Jim Crow. And yet, the symbols of the old Confederacy in the form of public monuments are only now beginning to be erased, while the social legacy of Black oppression still cries out for redress.

Capitalism was built on slavery

Slavery was a key building block of U.S. capitalism—North as well as South. For example, the Second Bank of the United States, headquartered in Philadelphia and the major repository of U.S government funds as well as the holder of some 20 percent of U.S. bank capital, directed its investments into expansion of the cotton plantation economy in the South and the West. Profits were high in that industry, which depended both on the proliferation of Black slave labor and on the process of opening more land through the removal of the Native American populations who lived there. Second Bank president Nicholas Biddle regularly entertained Southern slaveholders in his mansions—which still stand in Philadelphia—and he personally speculated in cotton production. Biddle advocated the annexation of Texas in the 1840s, knowing that the territory was likely to be opened to cotton production and slavery.*

Second Bank of the U.S., in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)

However, when the Civil War broke out, emancipation of the captive Black population was not one of the federal war goals. Lincoln’s administration and Congress feared encouraging Black people to rise up against their masters—and were even more terrified of giving them arms to fight. The prevailing idea was to force the Southern states to sue for peace, and then to achieve a settlement in which the South would be restored to the Union with the slave economy intact. Anything more radical, Lincoln feared, would encourage the slaveholding border states to join the rebellion, which would perhaps help motivate European nations to recognize the Confederacy.

Thus, early in the war, the Union forces often returned fleeing slaves to their owners. In some instances, Lincoln himself voided the orders of military officers who had liberated slaves; such events took place even as late as May 1862, when the president overruled the action of General Hunter in emancipating the slaves of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.

In much of the South, however, once the Union troops proved themselves strong enough to defeat the rebel forces in battle and to occupy a district, emancipation generally came about as a matter of course. As the victorious troops approached, Black laborers put down their hoes and poured into the army by the thousands, even joining the fighting units when they were permitted to do so. Toward the end of the war, much of the Southern plantation economy was subjected to a giant general strike of Black labor—while many Blacks chose to work instead, often without pay, for the occupying federal troops and the cause of liberation. In large part, the Black population liberated itself.

WEB Du Bois pointed out in his book “Black Reconstruction in America,” “In August [1862], Lincoln faced the truth, front forward; and that truth was not simply that Negroes ought to be free; it was that thousands of them were already free, and that either the power which slaves put into the hands of the South was to be taken from it, or the North could not win the war. Either the Negro was to be allowed to fight, or the draft itself would not bring enough white men into the army to keep up the war.” With this realization, Lincoln discussed emancipation as a military measure. And finally, on Jan. 1, 1863, he proclaimed that the slaves of all persons in rebellion were “forever free.”

Texas at the end of the Civil War

News of the Emancipation Proclamation arrived in Galveston over two months after the Confederates’ General Robert E. Lee had already surrendered. The report came late to Black people in Texas because the frontier state was outside the main areas of conflict.

In fact, slavery and the plantation system continued to thrive in Texas for much of the Civil War. Plenty of fallow land existed that was ripe for agricultural development; slave labor was required to work it most profitably for the owners. Unlike other states in the “Black Belt,” the slaves made up only a third of the Texas population. Their numbers were augmented by slaves who were sent there during the war by their masters in Louisiana, Arkansas, and even as far away as Virginia who wanted a place of safekeeping for their human “property.” The slaves in Texas were employed to grow food for shipment to other parts of the Confederacy, and also to ship commodities through Mexico to Europe. Cotton was the main cash crop in the eastern counties, while sugar was grown in broad areas of South Texas.

Texas state capitol in the mid-19th century.

As the war wound down, the demobilized and demoralized Confederate troops in Texas often resorted to banditry. Houston and other towns were burnt down. Although many Black people gained new employment, and schools were opened for Black children, such gains were often countered by vigilante mobs that included returned Confederate veterans. Black voters and politicians were intimidated and often killed. Du Bois writes that the Texas committee on lawlessness and violence reported in July 1868 that 509 whites and 486 Blacks were killed during 1865-68, and that more than 90 percent of the murders were carried out by white men.

As in the other former Confederate states, in August 1866, Texas enacted a “Black Code.” These were laws that, sometimes under the guise of beneficial reform, relegated Blacks to a lifetime of labor on the plantations, with few rights and in conditions that nearly resembled those of slavery. Texas, for example, stipulated that contracts “shall embrace the labor of all the members of the family … able to work,” a method to compel Black women and children to return to laboring in the fields. All laborers, the code stated, were generally bound to remain on the job until the expiration of their contract; if they left earlier without permission, they would forfeit all of their wages.

If a person refused to work—i.e., by “feigning illness”—the code stated that they would be forced by a judge to labor on roads and public works without pay, until they consented to return to their regular employment. Moreover, all acts of “disobedience”—including impudence, “bad work,” swearing or indecent language, leaving home without permission, etc.—would result in a one-dollar fine. Laborers employed in the household (that is, former house slaves) were required to “promptly answer all calls … and execute all lawful orders and commands of the family … at all hours of the day or night and on all days of the week.” Failure to do so would be considered “disobedience” and subject to a one-dollar fine.

The Texas Black Code also stated that “persons of color” would be denied the right to testify in court except in cases when other persons of color were the alleged victims. Railroad trains had to carry one car for the “special accommodation” of Black freedmen—implying that they could not ride in the same cars as whites. The code specified that all laws prohibiting the “inter-marriage of the white and black races,” or “to permit any other than white men to serve on juries, hold office, vote at any election” were to remain.

Eventually, in 1870, the Texas legislature ratified the 14th and 15th Amendments, and the state was readmitted into the Union. But the relatively liberal state government, elected with the help of the Black vote, was displaced in the fraudulent election of 1873 by more reactionary ex-Confederate forces. Du Bois writes that “civil war” would have been imminent if the incumbent liberal governor sought to stay in office. But President Grant refused military aid to the governor, and he stepped down.

The end of Reconstruction

Following the political agreement of 1877 that mandated the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, Reconstruction came to an end. The old planter class once more asserted its power, blocking the ability of the majority of the Black population to escape poverty and peonage. The political rights that Black people had gained were quickly whittled away in the South, while discrimination in public facilities and in housing was installed more firmly in the North—enforced with acts of terror, such as the assassination of Black leader Octavius Catto in Philadelphia in 1871.

During the next decades, lynch mobs and terrorist groups like the KKK ran rampant throughout the South and in the North too—although crusaders like Ida B. Wells fought back. In the NAACP journal The Crisis, WEB Du Bois described a particularly horrible lynching in Waco, Texas, in 1910. A teenaged boy named Jesse Washington had been accused of the murder and rape of his female employer. He was arrested and brought to a grand jury hearing in Dallas, but returned to Waco after he had agreed to waive his legal rights. As rumors of a lynching circulated, he was housed in the offices of a local judge.

One investigator was quoted by Du Bois as stating, “They brought the boy back to Waco because a lynching was of political value to the county officials who were running for office. Every man I talked to said that politics were at the bottom of the whole business. All of that element who took part in the lynching will vote for the Sheriff.”

As the trial took place, the courthouse was surrounded by a mob of some 2000 people. After a hurried trial session, the jury pronounced Washington guilty. A big fellow in the back of the courtroom shouted out: “Get the nigger!” Then, with the connivance of the sheriff, Washington was pulled out of the court chambers and dragged through the streets at the end of a chain. White people ripped off his clothes and hacked off parts of his body—his penis and his ears were claimed as souvenirs. Others battered Washington with shovels and bricks or anything they could find; his body, still with a drop of life in it, was dripping with blood. Next, a bonfire was ignited in front of City Hall, and the boy was lowered into the flames. He tried to crawl up the chain to safety but was beaten back down. The crowd, which had grown to some 10,000 white people, watched in delight, holding toddlers on their shoulders to get a better view. Later, they swarmed the body to get more souvenirs—roasted fingers and toes and scraps of clothing. Several kids pulled out Jesse Washington’s teeth and sold them to bystanders for $5 each.

Some mob actions targeted entire communities. In November 1898, white supremacists sought to overturn the elected city government of Wilmington, N.C., which included a number of Black representatives. To this purpose, the bigots organized a series of provocative marches through the Black community, led by a fascist-like group called the “Red Shirts.” Following the Nov. 8 election, they gathered a crowd of about 2000 vigilantes and again marched into the Black neighborhood, with the goal of “killing every damned nigger in sight.” The destructive mob was aided by the Wilmington Light Infantry, which entered the neighborhood with machine guns blazing in order to quell an alleged “Black riot.” Several Black men were killed by the troops, and hundreds of Blacks fled the city to seek shelter in the swamps. The white supremacists then deposed the elected city government by gunpoint.

Of course, the scale of the Wilmington massacre was far exceeded in Tulsa in 1921 when a mob of 10,000 whites—abetted by the city authorities—utterly destroyed the Black community while murdering hundreds. Airplanes were used to drop firebombs on houses and people in Tulsa—presaging the massacre of the MOVE family and the destruction of a block of houses by Philadelphia cops using a helicopter on May 13, 1985.

Racial injustice is still alive

Today, while lynch mobs and racist vigilante groups still exist, their use as a force to intimidate Blacks and other working people in order to enforce the status quo is not widespread—at least for now. The ruling class considers the overt white supremacists and fascists more as a reserve force to be used when needed. But the police, armed with ever more lethal weaponry and ever more sophisticated methods of surveillance, still carry on their assigned role as repressors in service of the capitalist state. And Black people, as always, have been their prime target.

Following the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020, hundreds of thousands of protesters—of all colors and nationalities—filled the streets. They chanted “Black Lives Matter,” and demanded justice for the thousands of Black people killed by racist police. In fact, in the past year at least 951 people have been killed by on-duty cops in the United States, according to the Washington Post. Over 5000 have been killed by police since 2015. While most of the deaths are of white people, Blacks are killed at a highly disproportionate rate (36 per million for Blacks compared to 15 per million for whites). The prisons too are filled with Black men and women at rates far beyond their proportion of the U.S. population; in fact, there are more Blacks in prison than there are whites (475,900 to 436,500 in 2017). Moreover, slavery persists in Texas and four other Southern states, as prisoners are compelled to work for no wages at all.

Last year, as the mass movement became more conscious of these facts, and of the systemic nature of racism in this country, demands for defunding and the outright abolition of the police gained currency.

The legacies of slavery and of the subsequent Jim Crow era still affect Black people in many ways. Racial segregation still exists in housing and education, and is closely linked to income, wealth, and health. Blacks are still the last hired and the first fired, with an unemployment rate that is usually twice the rate for whites. Black people have the highest poverty rate in the U.S., at 18.8 percent, while non-Hispanic whites have the lowest at 7.3 percent. The median rate of wealth held by Black families is only $17,000 compared to $171,000 for whites—a ratio of 10 to one. Black people have a life expectancy that is 3.6 years lower than that of non-Hispanic whites—due in part to factors such as the use of Black communities as sites for polluting industry, waste dumps, and expressways. Similarly, the Black community is often located in areas that are directly in the path of climate-change-driven hurricanes and left unprepared for the consequences (as in New Orleans during Katrina); many others are sinking into the sea or sweltering in the hot summers.

It is clear that 156 years after the Civil War, racism and white supremacy live on. Capitalism was built on slavery, and racial discrimination here and worldwide was key to its growth; today, capitalism in its decline still relies on the inequality and injustice that racism provides. For this reason, while Juneteenth shines a probing light on the 400 years of Black oppression in this land, and the singular victory gained in the Civil War (the Second American Revolution), it also provides a beacon that can illuminate the road ahead.

As before, Black people and their allies need to build a huge mass movement that can sweep forward against the injustice that is baked into the system. Just as Black people fought to liberate themselves in the Civil War, they will be at the forefront of the coming Third American Revolution to build a new world of equality and freedom.

Top photo: A Black Civil War soldier and his wife and daughters. (Library of Congress)

* For further reading on this topic, see Daniel Weeks, “A Very Large Extent of Virgin Land: Nicholas Biddle, Cotton, and the Expansion of Slavery, 1823-1841,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, January 2021.

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