Today is Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day, or Emancipation Day. It was on June 19, 1865 when the announcement rang through the Confederate South that slavery had finally been abolished. After two centuries, African-Americans were finally not a commodity worth $3.5 billion dollars in 1860s terms (that is more worth than all the industrial North and South at the time), but human beings. And we wished the story ended there.
It didn’t. Following the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction led to more terror for blacks in our nation. Many denominations that split in the late 1850s and 1860s over North/South, Slave/Free issues did not welcome blacks as full members or ministers. Blacks were forced to worship “under the vine and fig” as they did previously. In churches where they could worship with whites, they were relegated to the balcony or back of the sanctuary.
The ensuing decades still did not usher in full freedom and civil rights. Congress passed laws. States did not follow them. Cities and states worked to prevent blacks from voting, housing, having access to jobs, and enjoying life without worrying if one would be lynched or accused of a crime they did not commit. All this hatred stemmed from difference in skin pigmentation, ethnicity and origin of continent.
Our nation had sundown laws, redlining, riots and legal segregation of races. We know what happened. Tulsa Race Riots. Birmingham. March on Washington. Civil Rights Act(s). Voting Rights Act. And on and on and on. Many good things happened that fought back the bad.
Many whites like myself can be deluded in thinking the struggle for black freedom ended. We might be tempted to say they got the right to vote, they got affirmative action. Yet we see the headlines and should know better.
Enter Charleston, South Carolina.
This week a white man walked into one of the most significant black churches in the South and killed nine people. In his confession, he said he wanted to ignite a race war. In a state that flies a flag that is a symbol of terror to our African-American brothers and sisters, people seriously questioned what could lead someone do commit such a heinous action.
What led this man to kill these men and women who were praying in a church? It was racism. It was hatred for someone who was “not like him” It was the imbibing of a sinful culture that exists within our nation, one that we have difficulty admitting we have, North and South, East and West. We will not own our national sins.
As I ponder that, it makes me realize something important. White Christians need to speak prophetically into white culture to be the conscience that drives out the sin of racism. The black church has been the moral witness within American society since the days of Lemuel Haynes, preaching sermons about liberty and equality of the races in the 1780s. It is time for more white Christians to follow his lead.
In order to see our nation change, the Christians have to change, churches have to chance and we must walk in lockstep with people who do not look the same. We will never experience racial solidarity if we say that “all are made in God’s image” and do not speak out when people are denied their dignity. African-Americans will never fully experience Juneteenth until we are willing to confess our own sins of indifference and silence, and speak out, listen, learn and walk side-by-side proclaiming the freedom proclaimed by Jesus himself in the Gospels and longed for by the Old Testament prophets.