This Juneteenth, Here’s Why Talk About Politics Should Also Be At The Cookout
We're still tryna get free.
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For most people, June signals the arrival of family vacations, reunions, weddings and backyard cookouts. It’s a time of freedom from the hustle and hassle of schedules, routines and long lists of to-dos. But for African American people, June is not only the start of summer, but it’s also symbolic of the struggle for freedom. Freedom Summer, a project initiated by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi to address voter suppression of Black voters, occurred over a two-month period from June to August 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law in August. And in Texas, a national celebration emerged in June. The Lone Star state was the last to receive the news that enslaved Black people had been emancipated with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
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While the rest of the country’s Black population was facing the next level of racism bound up in this lawful “freedom,” down in Texas, enslaved Black people were still praying to be released from the physical shackles that kept them hemmed up on plantations, brutally beaten, fearing for their lives and living in make shift houses designated as slave quarters. Finally, two years later, on June 19, 1865, the news arrived on the shores of Galveston, Texas, that all the Black people were free. But did the freedom go out with the tide when Major General Gordon Granger and his troops left after making the announcement on Juneteenth?
It’s been 154 years since freedom for African Americans made its way to Texas. According to the most recent data from the American Community Survey, African Americans make up 12%, or 37 million, of the total United States population. In Texas, where the population is just over 28 million, African Americans account for a little more than 3.1 million, or 12 %. In a way that numbers relate, according to a 2018 report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, 154 African Americans have served in Congress since the first ones, Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, were sworn in back in 1870. If our freedom is a numbers game, then just how free are we? The numbers don’t lie. The inequity, disenfranchisement and racism that we endure everyday tell a very different story.
As we create evites and gear up to celebrate Juneteenth across the country, it’s a good time to add political strategies to the menus of potato salad, brisket and lemon pound cake. While there is reason to celebrate some local government historic wins like former Texas state representative Eric Johnson as Dallas’ second-ever African American mayor, Lori Lightfoot as Chicago’s first LGBTQ and first African American female mayor or national wins like Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley as the first African American woman to win that state’s U.S. House seat, if we’re not careful we’ll wash these wins down with a glass of sweet tea and lose sight of the work that still needs to be done in the upcoming election year. Yes, we should focus on the presidential election, but we should also focus on what presence we can gain in governorships, other state offices and Congress. Representation matters.
There are 25 states and territories that have never elected an African American person to Congress. Even with the recent wins in the 2018 election, according to Pew Research, African Americans “have made gains in political leadership, but the gap still remains.” There are 52 African Americans in the House, an increase of six from 1965. That’s 12% of the House of Representatives. But why settle for 12% as the magic number?
I recently had the opportunity to hear civil rights activist Ruby Sales at an evening lecture at Vanderbilt Divinity School as part of its Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative. She reminded the audience of students, professors, clergy and social justice activists that her own work in the southern freedom movement was not just about fighting for the right to vote, but also “affirming our right to be human beings in a society that said we were second-class.” What do the numbers say today?
Nationwide, there are Juneteenth celebrations being planned, like the Representation Matters daylong event in Mt. Vernon, Massachusetts or the three-day Capital City celebration in Sacramento featuring Angie Stone, or the Dallas Historical Society’s night with local historian Donald Payton. Other events include health fairs, reparations discussions and yes, politics. Events like these also serve as opportunities for us to level up and strategically plan for more representation in elected offices.
Our emancipation continues to look emaciated. The next time we’re at backyard cookouts, gathered around the card table listening to Uncle Earl talk smack, let’s talk shop about this next election cycle. That we are 154 years later still planning programming to address voter suppression, economic, health, food and political disparities in the African American community speaks to the unrelenting reality that even in the shadows of Freedom Summer and Juneteenth, we are still tryna get free.
Yvette R. Blair-Lavallais is a minister and social justice activist in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. She is a fellow of Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project.