President Biden has just signed the bill making Juneteenth National Independence Day a federal holiday. Juneteenth, which is observed on June 19, marks the date in 1865 when the last Black slaves in Texas finally learned they were free from federal troops arriving in Galveston after the end of the Civil War, more than two and a half years after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in the Confederate states. Black families have celebrated this holiday for generations, but in a renewed era of national racial reckoning Juneteenth has taken on even more significance. We honor this date because, in my beloved friend and role model Fannie Lou Hamer’s eternal words, nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
As cries for equity and justice first began spilling onto streets across the country after George Floyd’s murder last year, many people recalled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s repeated warning to us that a riot is the language of the unheard. It’s always useful to remember just what Dr. King taught. In one of his speeches on this message, given at Stanford University in April 1967, he explained his real topic was “The Other America.” Dr. King said: “I use this subject because there are literally two Americas. One America…is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.”
He continued: “But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist…In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Dr. King explained that riots were the cries of this other America: “[I]n the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of White society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Even while some leaders claim to be much more concerned about “law and order” and the status quo than justice, equality, and humanity, large segments of white society and all society have come to see and understand what is at stake when Black Americans say over and over we can’t breathe. There is a new clarity about how many deaths have been caused by winters of delay in accountability for police brutality and racialized violence, and the result has been a transforming universal movement for change. Those of us who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and marched with Dr. King can sense the tides of history turning again.
We must keep going. To achieve a just future for our children and our nation we must confront and dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate racism. This means not only reforming policing and the criminal justice system, but also confronting our unjust economic and political systems that create deep disparities in income, housing, education, health, and well-being and harm our children and families of color. The COVID-19 crisis and George Floyd’s death were both stark reminders that many Black Americans still live in another America with different risks and different rules. As Dr. King also said: “In a sense, the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to little children. Little children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies. As we look at this other America, we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams.” Our mission is to keep fighting the daily ugliness of this America until every child grows up in the sunlight of opportunity and all of our children can fully breathe.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund