Emerald in the Rough: Juneteenth and Independence for All

by Cindi Azevedo Laws, Columnist

Two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, United States soldiers marched into Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War was over and that slaves were now free.  It took a regiment to enforce Lincoln’s Proclamation because local law enforcement, backed by powerful land – and slave – owners, murdered the messenger who first tried to deliver the news.  But on June 19, 1865, freedom finally rang out across the great state, and the chains of 250 years of American history began to break.

The words rang out: “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 free laborer.”

Jubilation and tribulation ensued. Because a people had been denied the tools of literacy, an oral tradition honored June 19th as “Juneteenth.” Juneteenth is now a Texas state holiday. But the day deserves bigger and broader recognition since freedom, equality and representation continue to be elusive in this country.  While slavery in the United States formally ended on that day, two weeks before the annual Independence celebration, our practice of aiding and abetting the exploitation of the poorest class, the immigrant class, continues unabated to this day.  

For slaves, the 4th of July Independence Day was a mockery.  Said Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852, at a meeting sponsored by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, in New York: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States.”

Douglass conferred with President Lincoln about slavery.  And Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.  

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln understood that as long as one person is enslaved, none of us are truly free.  Today, while Members of the Congress and the Senate prepare their calendars for 4th of July celebrations throughout our nation, many chose to forsake freedom for millions among us, for people who seek “a nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  But while four score and seven million Americans blather on about immigrants violating the law, they ignore the lessons of human history, and indeed, our own history.  

When Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776, poverty and mistreatment of the lower class was accepted as a common and natural side effect of the existing structure.  Smith bitterly objected to the exploitation of workers by mercantilists who benefited from a restricted and highly regulated system.  Our current Congress, spooked by an ignoble citizenry, has not learned the lessons of either Smith or Lincoln.  By doing nothing about immigration, Congress allows 12 million people to be denied the fundamental proposition of the United States while continuing the exploitation of those same individuals by extracting value from their labor.  

This Juneteenth, there will be no regiment celebrating emancipation; there will be no open road to freedom and citizenship; but the underground railroad of immigration will still clang, like the chains of slavery that have enriched this nation throughout its history.

Two full weeks separate Juneteenth from Independence Day.  Make sure Congress knows the noble ideals of freedom and equality are worth more to you than mere words.

This piece previously aired on NPR and was published in numerous newspapers around the United States, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Cindi Azevedo Laws is a public affairs consultant and community activist living in the Rainier View neighborhood.