In celebrating Juneteenth, I studied some of the history of slavery and “freedom” in America for African-Americans. This includes the period of Reconstruction, where black people were allowed to vote, run for office, etc.
Then, at the end of the 19th century, Republicans quit protecting the rights of black people. Suddenly, states and towns enacted laws that restricted many rights. Eventually, these would become known as Jim Crow Laws.
Under Woodrow Wilson, a staunch racist, the Ku Klux Klan grew to 100,000 members. The military was re-segregated. Lyunchings and racism grew exponentially.
1919 was known as the “red summer,” because of the number of atrocities that occurred against black people. As they boarded trains to go to the war in Europe, black men hung signs out of the trains asking white people not to lynch their families while they were away. They were ignored.
Over 3 dozen white mob assaults on black people happened that year. In a couple incidents, hundreds of blacks were killed. In some places, the back side of houses were set on fire, so as the black families ran out of the front to escape, they were shot. One of those places of white on black violence happened here in Indianapolis, in a section called Garfield Park. Chicago and other northern places also had problems, so it wasn’t just a southern issue.
According to white papers at the time, the rioting and killings were always blamed on black people, who were supposedly embracing Soviet socialism. I looked at the headlines on many papers of the time, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, etc., and they all blamed the troubles on black people rioting to replace the Constitution with a Soviet style socialism. We would hear the same claims against Martin Luther King jr’s peace marches 40 years later, as an excuse to not give African Americans their god given rights of freedom.
A century ago, in 1921, occurred the Tulsa Massacre. A section of Tulsa, named the Greenwood District. After WW1, with so many soldiers returning home from war, the country wasn’t prepared for the influx of workers. This caused tensions as African Americans were laid off, so white soldiers could get the jobs. Poverty and unemployment increased for many African American families. However, the Greenwood District was different. It was an affluent African American community.
A young black man, Dick Rowland, was arrested for riding in an elevator with a white woman. African Americans peacefully protested the arrest. Meanwhile, white mobs gathered around the courthouse, wanting to lynch the boy, as the rumors grew as to what happened. A skirmish occurred at the courthouse. This quickly moved to Greenwood, where white mobs burned down 35 city blocks, injured 800 people and killed as many as 250 African Americans. The governor called out the National Guard, which arrested 6000 people, almost all were African Americans attempting to protect their own property and lives.
The newspapers at the time were deathly silent about the murders and destruction. Until recently, it was called the Tulsa Riot, and blamed on black people. Now it is appropriately named the Tulsa Massacre.
In these events, we see that history was manipulated to fit a certain story. Just as Confederate statues were erected during this time period by the KKK to celebrate their racist past and rewrite their history, so too, the lynchings and attacks on African Americans was rewritten to fit a narrative.
Such narratives are always attempted by those who seek to enslave or abuse the weaker groups. As we see in D&C 87, ours is a history of slavery, and slaves seeking to overthrow their masters.
History is sloppy, as everyone seeks to put their own spin on it. But when the full facts are laid out, each individual can see where history really is. It is full of triumphs and disasters. We don’t like to see our own ancestors as the bad guys (imagine how Germans feel when hearing about Hitler and the Nazis). But if we want to progress as a people toward true freedom and brotherhood of all, then we must meet our history head on, warts, lynchings and all.
Why do we need Juneteenth as a new holiday? Because it is OUR history. It belongs to African Americans. It belongs to white Americans. It belongs to everyone who loves freedom, and who seek to end tyranny in all its forms.
To understand Juneteenth is to understand our own struggles today. We can see people of color today, who are seeking freedom from oppression. They seek the American dream, which was denied their parents and grandparents, and sometimes they themselves.
Why must we feel our freedom threatened by others also wishing to have freedom? We should open our arms to peoples of all colors, who are dealing with government and societal abuse. If they lose their freedom, or never gain the freedoms we enjoy, then we risk losing our freedoms if and when our group is considered a risk.
Today, I ponder the atrocities done a century ago against our African American brothers and sisters. I hope that a century from now, schoolkids will read how we overcame that racist past and as Americans rebuilt our society on the premise of freedom and brotherhood/sisterhood for all.