According to the Smithsonian Institution, “Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day.” On this day in 1865, some two thousand Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, where they announced that the more than two hundred and fifty thousand enslaved black people in the state were free by executive decree. The day became known as “Juneteenth” by the newly freed people in Texas and eventually became a federal holiday.
As such, today illustrates the path to cultural transformation our nation urgently needs.
“Lots of Negroes were killed after freedom”
President Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” declared all enslaved people in the Confederate States legally free on January 1, 1863. However, as the Smithsonian explains, “Not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control.”
As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free for another two years. Even after the Civil War ended and the Thirteenth Amendment legally ended slavery, some former Confederate soldiers still tried to round up black “runaways” and return them to their owners while white vigilantes tracked down and punished formerly enslaved people.
Susan Merritt of Rusk County, Texas, recounted what happened when some black people in Texas tried to claim their freedom: “Lots of Negroes were killed after freedom . . . bushwacked, shot down while they were trying to get away. You could see lots of Negroes hanging from trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom. They would catch them swimming across Sabine River and shoot them.”
It was another century before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned racial discriminatory practices in voting. The social and cultural struggle for racial equality continues today.
Laws are essential but not sufficient
Brookings reports that in 1940, 60 percent of employed black women worked as domestic servants; today the number is 2.2 percent, while 60 percent hold white-collar jobs. In 1958, 44 percent of whites said they would move if a black family became their next-door neighbor; today the figure is 1 percent. In 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, only 18 percent of whites said they had a friend who was black; today, 86 percent said they do, while 87 percent of blacks said they have white friends.
Despite much progress, much progress remains.
The US Justice Department released last Friday what the New York Times called a “damning account of systemic abuses and discrimination by the police in Minneapolis, the result of a multiyear investigation that began after the murder of George Floyd in police custody ignited protests across the country.”
Black families in America have a median wealth of $13,460; white families have a median wealth of $142,180. The homeownership rate for whites is 72 percent; for blacks, it’s 42 percent. Racial disparities in educational, economic, and health care outcomes persist in the US.
Here’s my point: laws are essential to a moral society but not sufficient. The persistence of racial discrimination long after Juneteenth reminds us that America needs the kind of social transformation that society cannot create.
“He will bring forth justice to the nations”
Scripture proclaims: “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lᴏʀᴅ his God” (Psalm 146:5). This is because our God “executes justice for the oppressed” and “gives food to the hungry” (v. 7a).
In addition, “The Lᴏʀᴅ sets the prisoners free; the Lᴏʀᴅ opens the eyes of the blind. The Lᴏʀᴅ lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lᴏʀᴅ loves the righteous. The Lᴏʀᴅ watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (vv. 7b–9).
How does our Father bring about such cultural transformation? Through the ministry of his Son.
In Isaiah 42, the Lord said of the coming Messiah, “I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. . . . He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth” (vv. 1, 4). Since justice has not yet been “established” fully “in the earth,” we can know that Jesus’ earthly ministry continues through his church serving as his “body” in the world (1 Corinthians 12:27).
Three practical steps
How can we join our Lord as he brings “justice to the nations”?
One: Pray for the Fifth Great Awakening now circling the globe to come to America. Intercede daily for the moral and spiritual transformation our society needs so desperately. And pray that it begins with you.
Two: Ask God to reveal your role in working to end racial discrimination in our culture. Trust him to empower and equip you as you work to fulfill your calling. Measure success by your obedience.
Three: Emulate Jesus’ passion for every human being as an image-bearer of God (Genesis 1:27) for whom our Savior died (Romans 5:8). God loves each of us as if there were only one of us (St. Augustine). Make his compassion your goal.
Henri Nouwen writes: “One of the greatest human spiritual tasks is to embrace all of humanity, to allow your heart to be a marketplace of humanity.” He adds: “Somehow, if you discover that your little life is part of the journey of humanity and that you have the privilege to be part of that, your interior life shifts. You lose a lot of fear and something really happens to you. Enormous joy can come into your life. It can give you a strong sense of solidarity with the human race, with the human condition.”
Will you choose such joy today?