The Ongoing Pursuit of Absolute Equality

Published 6/15 in This Week at Plymouth

By DeWayne L. Davis

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves” —General Order No. 3 announced by General Gordon Granger, June 19, 1865.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until college when classmates from Texas or whose families migrated elsewhere from Texas educated us about what they considered the largest and most consistent celebration of emancipation from slavery. I protested that we grew up celebrating emancipation at Watch Night Services on New Year’s Eve, re-enacting the anticipation of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on January 1. Oh, how quick they were to remind me that Lincoln’s proclamation did not free all of the enslaved. I soon learned why they were so proud and enthusiastic in their knowledge and observance of Juneteenth.

Those newly freed Black Texans who had heard General Gordon Granger announce their freedom marked June 19, 1865, as the day of their jubilee and, starting the very next year, galvanized and mobilized their communities to commemorate their emancipation from slavery. That was no easy task, and Confederate dead-enders used terror and violence to derail acknowledgment of the day. However, the holiday endured. In recent years, I have read the words of General Order No. 3 every Juneteenth. I am struck by its assertion of not just freedom for the enslaved but of absolute equality in their fundamental rights as the effect of that freedom. In the ensuing years, after slavery and after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, those who had fought to maintain the institution most assuredly understood that the status of the formerly enslaved had changed. Unfortunately, they refused violently to accept that those they considered inferior or lesser had equal value, worth, and rights. That rejection of equality continues to hamper national unity and a shared identity today.

Many in our nation still bristle and resist the pursuit of equality. Racial, gender, immigrant, and LGBTQ equality remained contested and subjected to backlash after hard-won progress. But those persistent free Texans were determined to claim Juneteenth to celebrate emancipation, and in their persistence, they asserted their equal status as free people and citizens. I hope we remember that Juneteenth is about emancipation and equality. For in the abolition of slavery, in the freedom of God’s beloved made in the image of God, the spirit of Juneteenth enlists us in the project of seeing and making real our shared humanity and personhood with others of every race, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. Rep. Al Edwards of Texas, the leader responsible for Texas becoming the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, called Juneteenth a “source of strength.” I think it could be if we never forget it.