Recognizing Juneteenth – A Message from American Baptist Churches USA General Secretary Dr. C. Jeff Woods

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Recognizing Juneteenth – A Message from American Baptist Churches USA General Secretary Dr. C. Jeff Woods

Juneteenth honors the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. The name “Juneteenth” is a blend of two words: “June” and “nineteenth.” It is believed to be the oldest African-American holiday, with annual celebrations on June 19th in different parts of the country dating back to 1866.

The Juneteenth anniversary commemorates the arrival of 2,000 troops in Galveston, Texas to announce that 250,000 enslaved black people in that state were now free by executive order. In the immediate years that followed, there were signs of hope for former slaves. In 1870, the 15th Amendment passed, stating, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Soon after the passage of the 15th Amendment, 500,000 black men registered to vote, helping to elect 2,000 Black men to public office. With Reconstruction, race based chattel slavery was over. From 1865 to 1877, blacks ran for political office, opened businesses, and started schools.

While this Amendment marked an important moment in U.S. history, this one structural decision was not enough to change American culture on this issue. By 1910, registered voters among African-Americans dropped to as low as 2% in many states. Black leaders in particular who voted, were often chased down, beaten, and even killed creating a new system of fear among Blacks.

After studying culture change for many years, I have discovered that this change can only be brought about by consistent actions involving people, systems, structures, and symbols. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of these actions served to reinforce rather than curtail prejudice and discrimination during the Reconstruction Period of 1861 to 1900.

Symbols are often the most powerful tool for cultural change, or cultural preservation. Public lynchings, the KKK, the raising of Confederate monuments, White House showings of the “Birth of a Nation” film, the development of the Lost Cause Narrative, and a segmented day for Blacks at the 1893 World’s Fair were all powerful symbols perpetuating the notion of White supremacy.

These symbols were fortified by structures and systems such as the Jim Crow laws, literacy tests that asked Black voters to answer obscure questions in order to vote, and the “Grandfather Clause” that excluded people from these tests who could vote prior to 1867 and their descendants. Unjust acts escalated until the passage of “home rule” in 1877 that removed all protection for Blacks in the southern states.

Jemar Tisby, in his book, “The Color of Compromise” details these and many other stories of the symbols, structures, systems and people who either actively or complicitly worked to construct and perpetuate racism in America. Without the passing of laws and the attention to symbols, structures, and systems aimed toward anti-racism, these injustices will continue. One of the first steps that someone can take is to educate oneself about the history of racism in America. The Executive Committee of the Board of General Ministries has been reading Jemar Tisby and other authors to better understand the history of racism in America. I encourage others to read this and other books on the subject as you educate yourselves on this critical issue.

In his book, Jemar Tisby speaks of the ABC’s of racial justice: awareness, relationships, and commitment. I challenge our ABC family to practice the ABC’s of racial justice. Why not take the first step today and order a book for summer reading on this critical issue.

Dr. C. Jeff Woods
General Secretary
American Baptist Churches USA