June 19, 2015 marks 150 years
since the ending of slavery in America. This
day is commonly known as “Juneteenth.” Juneteenth is the oldest known
celebration of the ending of slavery. Dating back to 1865, it was on June
19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at
Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that all slaves were now
free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s
Emancipation Proclamation which had become official January 1, 1863. Many slave
owners sent their slaves to Texas to “stash” them until after the war. The goal was to retrieve them after a
Confederate victory. Once the South
fell, it was finally feasible for the Union forces to come in and effectively
free the slaves. June 19th
would then become a day of celebration for newly freed blacks in the South. The
Juneteenth holiday should stand as an opportunity for the country to
acknowledge “freedom” for all its citizens.
However, the freed blacks were anything but free.
Until the end of slavery, Black
people were always depicted as fiercely loyal, docile, and completely devoted
to the slave masters. This was done to counteract the work of abolitionists who
chronicled the savagery of the “peculiar institution.” It was only after emancipation, that Blacks
inherited the stereotypes of being extremely violent, untrustworthy, dangerous
and prone to the need to rape white women. They regaled the masses with the
notion that ex-slaves would take over the country and change the American way
of life. The goal here was to hamstring
the already difficult effort of freed Blacks to become independent American
citizens. For the next 100 years, Black
people would endure the most concentrated form of domestic terrorism on
American citizens in the country’s history.
However, America has done its best to avoid calling it by that
name. Despite the night riding of the
Klan, the hundreds and hundreds of “sanctioned” lynchings, the various murders
of Civil Rights workers, Black people who tried to register to vote, and
“troublemakers,” the word “terrorism” has never been used.
Even with one of the most
heinous events of Jim Crow, the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, it
was never called terrorism. Four girls,
killed while getting ready to sing in the choir, on Youth Day, in September
1963. Why is that? Is it because violence against minorities in
America was part of the status quo? That
was “just the way things are?” Were
people too frightened to take the terminology to the next level, because of
what could happen to them? In many occasions in the past, the perpetrators of
these crimes were set free or not even brought to justice. During the last part of the twentieth
century, with the reopening of Civil Rights cases, we have seen murderers
brought to justice. Notably, three of
the individuals who bombed Sixteenth Street, over fifty years ago. Unfortunately, these extreme acts have not
ceased in America. Shootings in schools, movie theaters and yes, places of
worship continue to plague this country.
Although the title of “Terrorist” doesn’t seem to fit everyone.
Earlier this week, a twenty-one
year old named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at a historic Black church
and murdered 9 people, including the pastor and an 87 year old woman. As he reloaded his gun, he spoke of the same
stereotypes that have been used to denigrate Black people since the end of
slavery. “Taking over the country.” “Raping
‘our’ women.” The first words used to
describe this shooter, like many of the shooters we’ve seen over the last five
years who didn’t fit the narrative:
mentally disturbed, troubled, loner, etc. The events in Charleston have
been likened to what happened in Birmingham at Sixteenth Street church. That horrible day in 1963, helped to change
the landscape and the minds of America about what was happening in the Jim Crow
South. Perhaps we can see something come
out of the tragedy in South Carolina.
Maybe we will actually have
honest conversations about race and “cause and effect.”
Maybe we will see that some
people will understand that language has power.
Maybe we will start to call this
what it is. Terrorism. Tried and true,
just like Racism in America.
Ahmad Ward is the Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI