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Arts & Culture

Juneteenth Holiday Celebrates Freedom From Slavery

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In 2021, the Juneteenth celebration became a federal holiday. The date recognizes when Blacks in Galveston, Texas were told about the Emancipation Proclamation two and half years after it was signed.

News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Rev. Ron English to find out more about the holiday and the history behind it. English is a retired pastor who grew up in Atlanta with Martin Luther King Jr. and his family before moving to Charleston, West Virginia in the early 1970s.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Explain the significance of Juneteenth. Tell me about Juneteenth.

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Rev. Ron English

English: Juneteenth is really the Liberation Day of African Americans. That was when word arrived in Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. And therefore, Juneteenth became the Liberation Day of Blacks in Texas. And it evolved into a kind of celebration that had historic roots.

I think Juneteenth was the first authentic Black holiday. Because, at first, King Day was considered a Black holiday, but it really hadn't become that. It has been a celebration of the convenient King, rather than the radical King. It really is a date that is focused on King's speech, the “I Have a Dream” speech, rather than the one that he gave the day before he was killed that called out three evils of America. So, in that sense, Juneteenth is more authentic, because it has a story behind it. And that story cannot be ignored, and therefore the day cannot be ignored, without telling the story. And when you get that kind of narrative behind a day, that gives it significant significance and gives it power.

Douglas: Juneteenth started out as a fairly regional holiday. It was really just a Texas celebration at first and just in the last 30 to 40 years. 

English: That's why I brought along the book that's written by Arnette Gordon Reed, Pulitzer Prize winner. The best folk who can tell the story about Texas are from Texas. And I read this little passage, it says, “As years have gone by, I have had occasions to think more about the tragedy and triumph in relation to Texas’ past, present and future as possible, very likely that my time there prepared me for the work I do as a historian of the early American Republic, another moment when triumph and tragedy were inexhaustibly intertwined, distinct, leaving those threads and viewing them critically, it has been in fact a good thing in the context of our national history, broadening our understanding of who we are, and who we are now.”

Listen to an extended version of this interview with Rev. Ron English.

Douglas: What does the holiday mean to you personally, but also what does it becoming a federal holiday mean to you personally? 

English: Another Texan who is a good friend of mine, who pastors a church right across the street [at] First Baptist Church, Paul Dunn, is from Texas. And so when we had a conversation about Juneteenth, he gave me the four primary reasons that Black folk and Texas started celebrating Juneteenth.

First of all, it was the reunification and reconnection of the family, which is celebrated the way that the Fourth of July is celebrated. The second thing was it led to a commitment to deal with mass illiteracy, as a result of slaves not being taught to read, or allowed to read during the time of that slavery. It recognized the establishment of schools to address the problem, which was the genesis of the historically black colleges, such as Wiley College in Texas, and 1860s, 1873, in Marshall, Texas, and other Black colleges, Prairie View in 1867. So you can see that right after the emancipation of Blacks on Juneteenth, came Black colleges to help deal with the illiteracy problem that they had, as a result of not being able to read and not being allowed to read during slavery.

The third thing was a commitment to get involved in the political process. And identifying Blacks who could run for office. But it also had another interesting feature. Those who were liberated sued their slave owners for the money that the slave owners made on their backs. And that is the first taste of reparations.

Douglas: Did they sue for the time between the Emancipation Proclamation to Juneteenth, or did they sue for the money they made on their backs, period?

English: They sued for the money that had been made on their backs, period. That's why that's so significant in terms of how it established a kind of economic base for them being able to start for what they have been deprived of, in terms of their own resources. And now they were able to start, in terms of really building resources. That really became the basis of Black capitalism.

Douglas: You were a contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr. I think you're a few years younger than he was, but you consider him a mentor — joining the church and joining the civil rights movement. 

English: His family and my family were very close. My mother used to talk to Mama King into the wee hours in the morning, because they just had that kind of connection. And I have pictures of him when he was a kid. One of the pictures that I have is him sticking his head out of a car window. And my mother put on that picture, “just hanging out,” because he was actually hanging out of the window of that car. So our families had gone back for a while. He licensed me into the ministry, and I served as his assistant until his death. And I gave the prayer at his funeral.

So there were opportunities, as I think about them now, being with him, every once in a while alone, and I got so excited that I would forget about what I wanted to say. And now so many questions, I wish I had asked about that. That was the relationship that we had, primarily by way of our family connections.

In 1962, when they started boycotting in Atlanta, a friend of mine did a sit-in, because we weren't really allowed to get into the movement because of our age and that kind of thing. Later on, there were some other things that we were able to participate in more actively.

Seeing how he grew and how he took on the kind of issues that really, I believe, caused his death. I don't think he was killed because he was a civil rights leader. I think because he had called out the three evils of American society.

Douglas: What are those? 

English: Those were the issues of racism, militarism and economic injustice. And that's how he started the Poor People's Campaign. That was going to be a march on Washington, to really address those three issues. Those were the three evils that he had identified, and I believe that you hardly ever hear that on the celebration of King Day, because they are still with us.

Douglas: When he was shot, he was actually working on a sanitation workers strike, right? 

English: Oh, yeah, in Memphis. He was shot when he had just spoken the night before. That speech almost makes you think he anticipated his death, in terms of how he ended it. “I may not get there with you. But we as a people will get to the promised land. 'My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.'” It was almost like he had some anticipation of his death. And when it happened, when the assassination happened the next day on April 4, it really almost, [was] comforting for me and a lot of people that he anticipated. It's kind of a marvelous way to make a last speech, a marvelous, majestic moment in terms of use and that anticipation to make that proclamation.

Douglas: I think I remember you telling me that you had actually expressed to Dr. King that you wanted to join the movement, right before he was killed. But realistically, you grew up in this, or you've lived this for 60 years, since King started the marches.

English: That's why it's been so interesting to watch the panorama of the progress, as well as the retrogression, as we had talked about earlier, in terms of how we now really see the need for the healing, because we now see the depth of the disease, the depth of the deprivation, depth of the separation and it has all kinds of morbid motives, in terms of what has sanction, what many of us thought we would not see.

But at the same time, because of the rise of the Proud Boys, and the visualization of it, because it's caught on camera — the exposure has really brought it into the eyes, minds and spirits of those of us that view it. But it also brings to light, the depth of the disease, and you can't deal with it, you can't find a cure until you deal with the depth of the disease.


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