Let’s get the facts about Juneteenth straight.
By Michael Martin, Preacher
My fellow Epworthians. I am honored to be here. Well, not “here” “here” being the desk in my home office. But you know what I mean. Before we start, a few provisos. First: given the rapid-fire manner in which news has developed over the past couple of weeks, what I am speaking today, may have no relevance at all by the time you see and hear this, Sunday morning. Things change, literally, overnight. But that’s all right. Those who know me know that what I have to say, and relevance don’t always hand-in-hand anyway. Next: this is really weird. Talking to this device instead of talking to you is quite strange. I can’t gauge your reactions to what I am saying. There is no interaction, no audience, or rather congregation, feedback. I can’t tell whether you laughed at that funny I just made. I won’t know if you are laughing at any of my jokes. So…there will be no humor. Thank you.
I am honored to have the opportunity to address you, my beloved congregation on this, the Sunday before Juneteenth. So, first, let’s get the facts about Juneteenth straight, as there are many varied versions.
Juneteenth is, originally, a Texas observance. It celebrates the day, June 19, 1865, when the slaves of Texas were officially freed.
As with many of observances of this nature: the celebration of the undoing of an evil thing, there is an element of wry irony that goes with it. There has always been, to me, some tongue-in-cheek to the celebration of the official granting of freedom to the slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, about a year-and-a-half after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, 1863. A number of reasons are given for this delay, some of them nonsensical Keep in mind, there was a war on, and it didn’t end until two months before Juneteenth.
But it was June 19,1865, when General Gordon Granger arrived by ship at Galveston with 2,000 United States troops and announced that “the people Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” I’m a California boy, born over at Alta Bates, brought up here, in El Cerrito. But, like a great many black Californians I am a product of the Second Great Migration, here from the South, primarily Texas. My mother’s family came to the Bay Area from Beaumont, Texas, in 1942, to work in the war effort. Like the type of barbecue they serve at the old-style Everett & Jones, or the now-defunct Flints, transplanted Texans brought Juneteenth with them to California. So, I grew up with the observance.
This year, at this time, Juneteenth, as a celebration of black freedom has taken on a new feeling. There has been, I believe, a change in the conversation.
Many of you may remember that I spoke before the congregation in February, during Black History Month. The message, you may recall, was a rather grim assessment of the overwhelming presence and influence of racism in America. The message lamented the complete institutionalization of its evil in our nation. It declared racism a force so inextricably interwoven into the fabric of our society, that its extraction seemed near impossible. Even we, you and I, could not avoid, I stated at the time, our own internal racism. I talked about racist practices at Air BnB, and those regarding Colin Kapernick’s taking a knee when the National Anthem is played before NFL games.
We were all willing to accept the institutionalization of racism in a relatively brand spanking new institution, Air BnB. Moreover, we all acknowledged that had a white player — say the ever-popular regular-guy everyman the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski (the Gronk), — had chosen sua sponte, on his own, to lodge the same protest for the same reason — the continued brutalization and killing of his black brothers — not because he grew up in a black neighborhood, or because he had played alongside black teammates all his life — but because he, Rob Gronkowski, could not bear to see his people continually victimized without speaking out — that we would not have believed him.
My point then, as it is now, was that until America — meaning white Americans — truly feels the pain that too heavily defines being black in America, bearing up under the continued, daily strain of racism’s heavy burden, racism will continue to define all our lives. I focused then, as I do now, on the apostle Luke, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and its manifold lessons.
I love the parable of the Good Samaritan. What I find instructive in it is the insistent lesson that we must become one, truly one, in order to ever, ever reach our goal of racial justice. For a white person in America, becoming truly one with one’s fellow black person almost surely requires dedication and sacrifice, emotionally, spiritually, and financially.
It is significant first that Jesus is relating the parable to his fellow Jews. The Samaritans were, I understand, not mere outsiders, but considered by Jews to be a despised enemy. And here, Jesus tells a story where a Samaritan is the hero.
What I really like, though, is the degree to which the Samaritan gives of himself help the injured man, who the whole point being, is not one of his people. I mean, he really puts himself out there: he uses his own oil and wine to dress the man’s wounds. He puts the man on his own ass, takes him to an inn, where he pays for his lodging and leaves him with an open tab. It is made clear here that truly loving one’s neighbor involves significant cost and risk.
I doubted, in February, that such willingness to incur such cost and run such risk existed among our comfortable, white, relatively affluent mainstream population. After all, ours was an America that could, and did, watch every minute of a video recording of Eric Garner, a black man accused of selling unlicensed single cigarettes on a street corner, getting slowly, but surely killed at the hands of the NYPD, and conclude that nothing could be done about it. No charges were filed. Five years later the officer that did the actual killing — that actually compressed Mr. Garner’s windpipe and carotid artery with his bare hands until he finally died — got fired over the vigorous protests of the police union. His Congressman said it was not racism, but Mr. Garner’s own fault for being too fat. His President, President Obama, a black man, said the incident represented “an American problem.”
The February message, I must admit, held out little hope. I gave up, and admitted “this mess won’t be cleaned up by the time I die.” But I stated at the time:
I have hope. I hope, long, indeed pray for another movement, a movement akin to the now revered, increasingly ancient civil rights movement. The urgency of now is what that movement embodied, with white people participating as avidly as their black siblings. We, you and me, could be part of such a movement. We, you and me, must be part of such a movement.
White America, I said, had to realize that, in the words of the Statue of Liberty poet Emma Lazarus, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.” The message did not conclude sweetly. There was no applause. I believe I was telling the truth, and it was, perhaps, a little uncomfortable. It was not a hopeful message.
Today, my fellow Epworthians, the message is much more hopeful. The conversation has been changed.
We have, in the past couple of weeks, been witness to an extraordinary change in our social landscape across the nation. It is a change for which conditions were ripe: circumstances were already dire, given a worldwide pandemic, shelter in place orders, and illness and death related to the plague disproportionately borne by nonwhite people. There was widespread concern about the mental health of a people beleaguered by disease. Things, it seemed, could not get worse. Then the video surfaced.
Now, the video has been discussed and discussed. Then discussed some more. But, I should tell you, in fact it’s my duty to tell you just how sick the recording made me feel. It is my duty because I believe I have experienced more detention by police officers than most of our congregation. I few years back I was asked by our previous pastor, Linda Loessberg-Zahl to participate in a service, recounting moments when I have felt like an outsider in my own country. I spoke to the congregation about the numerous instances and various jurisdictions where I have been detained, mostly while driving, but sometimes on foot, by the police. I interspersed my talk with droning listings of the different places — from Berkeley’s campus to Milestone Road on Nantucket Island; from 125th and Lenox in Harlem to a lonely highway in Elko, Nevada.
Indeed, I have probably been detained, to one degree or another, for varying periods of time, at least 60 times. To know the feeling of being completely in police custody, having the cuffs on, being in the back of the cruiser, being in a cell, trying to hide from the surveillance camera, being under the total control of someone else, and having no idea what is going to happen next, is to know a feeling like no other.
Running that gauntlet has been a distinct part of my existence. And, it prepared me well for another round of dealing with the authorities once my son, who is now 34 and has made it through, so far, became potential quarry.
I hear frequently about black parents having “the talk” with their adolescent sons about how to behave during encounters with the police. No need for that, really. My kids were in the back seat at least a half-dozen of the countless times I was pulled over.
So, having been in that horrible, helpless place called police custody in person and, by proxy, with my beloved son, watching the recorded death of George Floyd, helpless while in such custody brought on a feeling, a trauma, that surprised me greatly. And, apparently, I was not alone.
Author and New York Times contributor Roxane Gay wrote a piece entitled “No One’s Coming to Save Us” in which she despaired over the warfare that has been waged upon black America in the 21st century alone. Gary S. May, Chancellor at U.C. Davis, and the first African American to be such, penned a piece called “It Could Have Been Me.” It seemed to me that things were more hopeless than ever. Then, they got worse.
Across the country, where protests arose over police brutality, police thought the best way to respond was with some more police brutality. In Louisville, in response to protests about the shooting death of Breanna Taylor a few weeks ago by police in her own home, police shot seven more people. The President, with seeming determination and direction, refused to respond to this obscene public killing with anything even approaching appropriateness or propriety. His reaction to the cases of rioting and looting was reminiscent of Mayor Frank Rizzo’s orders in 1960s Philadelphia: “shoot to maim looters. Shoot to kill arsonists.” One of my best friends was talking about becoming an expat, moving to Paris. “This place is a mess,” thought I.
Only a portion of the video was generally aired publicly. That is because most of it consisted of continued footage of a Minneapolis police officer, face impassive, left hand in his pants pocket, right knee on the neck of a begging, pleading Minneapolis citizen, casually, easily killing that citizen, a black man named George Floyd.
But something about that footage — maybe its graphic nature; maybe the close-up shot of the expressions of the victim’s face; maybe the sound of the helpless passers-by begging for the man’s life but powerless to summon the authority to stop it ( what’re they gonna do, call the cops?); maybe the casual manner in which the officer’s fellow officers stood by, heading off any possible interference while Mr. Floyd’s most precious thing, his life, was slowly tugged away from him by their buddy. Whatever it was, it appears that the soul of a nation was finally touched. Perhaps, my fellow congregants, perhaps, my dream, my prayer for a highly energized, honest, focused, racially inclusive movement will be answered. The conversation has been changed.
Now here, I realize upon rereading, I go, a little too deeply into historical detail, a weakness of mine, to make the point that the only anti-racism movements that have historically gained any traction in America are those wherein everyone, white people included, joined the cause.
The fight for the liberation of black people in America has been constant and unending. We have all heard, anecdotally, of the Underground Railroad, the Nat Turner Rebellion, the abolitionist movement, John Brown, and, ultimately, the Civil War. We know, to a lesser degree, about Reconstruction and its destruction, and the lynching, disenfranchisement that were part of that destruction. There have always been awful stories about the Ku Klux Klan and its reign of terror throughout the South during the late 19th, and most of the 20th century.
While mainstream America, white America, knows about these things, and knows that they were and are wrong, that knowledge often seems abstract. It is difficult, near impossible it seems, for white people in their hearts, minds, and souls to actually feel the pain borne, on a constant and daily basis by black people. Don’t get me wrong. I do not throw blame, but merely acknowledge the degree to which racism, and blindness to racism, is at the core of our very culture. Our culture has been carefully and efficiently constructed to make the occurrence and acceptance of racism comfortable. We also live in a world carefully and efficiently constructed to make the fighting of racism by white people uncomfortable.
As a result, it seems that an unseen, unnamed force in society historically keeps its metaphorical knee on our neck, battled by wave after wave of movements toward justice, some more successful than others. It seems, upon casual observation, that the more successful movements are those that capture the hearts, or better, attract the participation of, white people.
Nat Turner’s rebellion was mercilessly crushed. In response to it, the Citadel, that West Point of the south, was built for further crushings, should they become necessary. The Underground Railroad, with the help of the Society of Friends and other white abolitionists, was, for what it was, successful. The abolitionist movement of the 19th century required, of course, the heavy involvement of white people. William Lloyd Garrison published an anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, out of Boston. The movement dovetailed nicely with that of women’s suffrage, involving Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. Ms. Mott, a Quaker, was known as a particularly effective abolitionist.
Reconstruction, generally thought to have begun with the federal Reconstruction Act of 1867 was intended to reintegrate the states of the Confederacy and their 4 million newly-liberated slaves. It had the backing, obviously, of many Congressmen and, mostly northern, citizens. For a brief period, in many cases backed by federal troops, there was black voting and the election black people to local, state, and federal offices. Then, by 1878 political shifts in Congress and the Executive Office (as the White House was then known) resulted in the withdrawal of federal troops and the literal end of an era. Hence the frequent announcement of “the first black — fill in the blank — mayor, Congressman, senator , et c. Since Reconstruction.” That’s what that means. The abrupt withdrawal of the federal troops to enforce federal laws, a compromise reached under the Hayes administration, southern states took over their own governance, the Klan was born, anti-black legislation grew and flourished. It gave birth to Jim Crow, the version of the south that I grew up with, with “whites only” and “colored only” signs all over the place.
The “Civil Rights Movement”to which I referred in February, is a reference to a series of activities occurring during the 1960s and 1970s. The anti-racism tactics of the early part of the century — public education, legislative lobbying, and litigation — morphed into “direct action” tactics. These were, generally speaking, protest activities — marches, boycotts, sit-ins — that were collectively described as non-violent resistance. Sit-ins, the occupation of segregated lunch counters and other facilities by black people only to be denied service and arrested took place, starting during the summer of 1964. A wealth of separate organizations participated in the movement, a veritable alphabet soup: The SCLC, SNCC, the NAACP, of course. The high point of the Movement, many agree, was the massive August 28, 1963 March on Washington, initially organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
250,000, a quarter-of-a-million people, attended. Originally intended to end at the Capitol, plans were altered so that Congress would not feel under siege , and the March’s terminal was the Lincoln Memorial, with speakers facing a massive crowd gathered on the National Mall. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was just a kid, 34 by my calculation, so he willingly took to end-of-the-day slot. (my son is 34!) The high shots wanted to speak earlier so they could make the news cycle. That was back when there was such a thing. Dr. King had intended to speak for four minutes, but it grew to 16. He was nearing the end of his prepared remarks when Mahalia Jackson, the revered gospel singer, who apparently had heard him preach similarly before shouted: “tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” Dr. King spoke from memory, as well as from the heart, when he delivered his most widely quoted words. People who know those words sometime have never even heard of the march.
JFK opposed the march, fearing bad reaction from the southern democrats in Congress. When Mr. Randolph and Mr. Rustin stood firm, he got with the program. The President got there white clergy involved on a national level, and enlisted Walter Reuther, president of the then-powerful United Auto Workers union to turn out white support for the march. Its universal appeal accounted for its universal success.
To be sure, there were, during the sixties, terrible, deadly riots in many American cities. Most of these were, then as now, triggered by police brutality toward and killing of black men. Then, as now, there was looting and arson. Then, as now, there was bellicose bellowing from some of our leaders about law and order.
But the Civil Rights Movement, somehow, captured the imagination of America. In its wake came the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This legislation, and the court cases that followed, formed the basis of much of the incursion on racism in America since. These laws are the recourse the black people have had to defend our rights since then.
To be sure, there have, in the years since, been more terrible and deadly riots in our cities, triggered, always, by the wanton cruelty of police officers. And, to be sure, there have been more movements: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter. They got attention for a while, and were then marginalized.
I have not witnessed, however, a reaction, a universal reaction — meaning white people, too — like that to the killing of George Floyd.
“To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” That’s Ecclesiastes, at Chapter Three. From what I have observed in the weeks since this horrible video surfaced is a change in the overall American attitude, for lack of a better word — and believe me, I tried to find one. It is difficult to express, but, as a black person, it seems that suddenly, unbelievably, America is on our side. It is as though the graphic image of the up-close murder of one of us suddenly made all of America believe what we’ve been saying all along.
Unlike the Eric Garner case and so many others, the police officers involved in this ugly fracas were immediately fired, rather than five years later. Murder, and other charges related to the homicide have been filed against them.
Unlike the Eric Garner case and so many others, condemnation from all officials involved, the Chief of Police, the Mayor, Senator Amy Klobuchar, everyone but the President was immediate and severe.
Unlike the Eric Garner case and so many others, this case has resulted in several, a dozen at last count, police departments eliminating the choke hold/knee compression from their enforcement bag of tricks.
Unlike the Eric Garner case and so many others, condemnation of the killing was worldwide. An example of just one press account: “the police killing of George Floyd has triggered anti-racism protests throughout the world. A number of monuments with links to colonialism and slavery have been defaced or pulled down in Europe and the United States as protests for racial justice continue.”
Unlike the Eric Garner Case, and so many others, that the killing was a racist act has not been denied, but readily recognized and realized widely as the slow, systematic killing of a black man because he was a black man.
When I spoke to you in February about the Garner case, I said:
“I bring this case up because it illustrates best, perhaps, the deep, deep institutionalization of racism in our American society. It also illustrates the most essential, insidious feature of the practice of racism: the denial that it even occurred. This gaslighting has been a feature of the oppression of the African since the beginning of the European imperial colonization of the rest of the world. Either it’s not even happening, or, if that cannot be credibly denied, it wasn’t a matter of race.”
That, I now believe, is no longer the case.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going all Pollyanna on this. I’m too old, too cynical. What I do see is this. From time to time, a racist incident occurs that is so blatant that it shocks the conscience of a nation deemed to be fair. Then, a leap in progress is made. The 2015 murder of nine black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, triggered, among other things, a reaction against the official flying of the Confederate battle flag. Ultimately it was removed from the statehouse grounds, and some other significant places throughout the country. Those murders, inexplicably, changed that conversation.
Now, I don’t have to listen to the drivel about the battle flag being merely a statement of southern pride, with nothing racist about it. It took those horrible killings for America to admit what we have been saying all along, that the battle flag is offensive, threatening. Such an admission totally changed that conversation. It is a big step.
What I see happening all around us now is another big step. All over the place it seems everyone is admitting that what has been oppressive, offensive, threatening, and dangerous to black people forever, is indeed oppressive, offensive, threatening and dangerous. Lady Antebellum, the country/rock trio has changed its name, stating that they didn’t realize it represented a painful time in this nation. NASCAR has decided to stop flying the stars&bars at their events. I believe they’ve promised to ban the fans from flying it, too, but we’ll see. When the fans are allowed out again. So that conversation has changed.
Sweetest to me, having complained so bitterly about the NFL in February, is the fact its commissioner, Roger Goodell, has apologized. Not to Colin Kapernik and what the league did to him and his career, but generally, announcing:
We the National Football League condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We the National Football League admit that we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.
We have it here. It’s on the record, in the books. The conversation has been changed once again.
“…a time to plant, a time to pluck up that which is planted.”
And so, my fellow Epworthians, today I have hope, and I gleefully urge you to join me. Perhaps with this particular lurch forward in the conversation about race, we will get closer to our goal of an America with room to fit us all.
Thank you, and Amen.
Preacher: Michael Martin at Epworth United Methodist Church
About the author : CoBiz
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