Reflections on Juneteenth and the Stalwart March to Victory

Steven Brown, Research Associate, June 19, 2020

On January 1, 1863, then-president Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime measure that ended the legal authority of slavery in the United States. But it wasn’t until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas, and announced General Order Number 3, declaring that “all slaves are free… [with] absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property.” After nearly 250 years in bondage, the enslavement of people of African descent had formally and permanently ended in the United States.

The song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—often colloquially referred to as the “Black National Anthem”—paints an inspiring picture of progress, hope, and liberation emerging out of dark and terrible circumstances. Written in 1899, the first verse embraces elements of jubilance and hope:

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on ’til victory is won.

The second verse speaks somberly to the harsh histories and realities of being Black in the United States:

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died

But the final verse has always been my favorite. Though the most overtly religious, it’s a piercing reflection on how hard fought and fragile freedom is. Without a sense of history, vision, and vigilance, we risk disrupting the forward march of progress. And what sticks with me most are the closing lines of the song:

May we forever stand

True to our God,

True to our Native Land.

Native land.

My ancestors were brought across the ocean to the United States, stacked on top of each other in the hulls of ships, then forced into a life of servitude, which was assigned at birth to their children and their children’s children for hundreds of years. But in that dark time, men and women who owned and sold other men, women, and children professed a declaration of equality and  freedom for all people—that “all men are created equal” and are endowed with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Though July 4, 1776 was the earliest exercise of that freedom, it applied to too few Americans. Frederick Douglass famously asked, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” It was not until June 19, 1865, with the Civil War over and the country reunited, that all formerly enslaved people were legally free.

It’s quite challenging at times to embrace a place that has so often been so hostile. But for my ancestors and for me, America is the only home I’ve known. For me and for so many others, it is our native land. So it’s important to celebrate that moment when those fundamental rights long denied after that first Fourth of July became realized in law and policy—that moment when we, as a country, came that much closer to living up to the promises enshrined in our founding documents.

Juneteenth was soon followed by the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (except, notably, as punishment for a crime), and the Fourteenth Amendment, establishing citizenship by birth and equal protection under the law.

But today’s moment of Juneteenth celebration also bears the inescapable truth that we still have so much further to go. Nearly a century and a half after emancipation, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color and their allies continue to advocate for justice, fairness, and opportunity that is so clearly still being denied. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered at the March on Washington in 1963, still ring as true now as they did then.

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.… But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So, we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

We cannot fully appreciate the significance of Juneteenth without acknowledging the enduring racial inequalities still apparent in today’s time of crisis. COVID-19 and the recent tragic killings of Black people at the hands of police (or vigilantes, in the case of Ahmaud Arbery) are the visible cracks in the foundation of democracy. Although no longer in bondage, the hope of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have yet to be fully realized for people of African descent who call this land home.

But King has an answer for that as well.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time… to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.… Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Now is the time to pass new laws protecting the health and safety of communities of color, and to develop policies that dramatically promote their flourishing. The Urban Institute was founded in a time of unrest to be a place that provided the needed evidence to support necessary and dramatic policy change. In this new moment, our original charge is just as urgent and just as necessary. I hope this small break to acknowledge Juneteenth not only allows us space to celebrate how far we have come but also helps us keep in focus that sense of history, vision, and vigilance needed to push for the policies that lead us closer towards liberty, justice, and opportunity for all—marching on until victory is won.