How long till justice? Juneteenth symbolizes both question and answer
June 18, 2021
Growing up deep in the heart of Texas, I learned in (segregated) school that Juneteenth was a big celebration day for Black people because it marked the date on which the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, finally reached Texas on June 19th, 1865.
This date, when federal troops arrived in Galveston to take control of the state after the Civil War, at last ended the egregious practice of legal human slavery in the United States.
It was easy for a white elementary school child to understand the facts. But what I didn’t know until many years later was that symbolically, the story of Juneteenth represents both a day to celebrate progress and a day to ponder the truth that liberty, justice, and human rights are never a given, that there will always be those who want to attain and retain power over others on behalf of their own interests. Those interests are usually based in fear: the fear of losing privilege whether financial, social status, or both. And they are rooted in the misguided belief that power is a finite pie.
All struggles for equality and justice are fundamentally about power. But the traditional narratives about power are dysfunctional. They are about wars and fighting over resources that are perceived to be finite, scarce. They are patriarchal and often bloody.
We need a wholesome rebalancing and resetting of that power paradigm. We desperately need to move from the old oppressive, power over model where whoever has the strongest army or the most money can control everyone else, to the power to model where generative, creative, innovative ideas, energy, and action prevail. Where we all understand that power itself is an infinite resource with no inherent qualities. That view of power is exemplified by this shortlist of Black women leaders today, and there are so many more men and women who deserve accolades for their positive use of power.
For power is what we make of it for good or ill. And we can always make more pies through innovation, creativity, love, collaboration, and intelligence. Transforming the power paradigm is how we make the world a better, healthier, and more prosperous place for everyone. Where society’s soul evolves because of movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #metoo, and dare I say, #taketheleadwomen.
But as we applaud the newly created Juneteenth national holiday, we must also remember it is not sufficient to bring about that ideal state.
For at the same time that President Biden signed the new holiday into law with the first female, Black and Asian Vice President Kamala Harris by his side and the bust of abolitionist Frederich Douglass in view, not only do significant disparities in wealth and health remain between Black people and whites but the nation is in the midst of a pitched battle for voting rights and the simple ability of teachers to discuss the important of race in the classroom.
Jimmie Briggs, principal at the Skoll Foundation, wrote in Vanity Fair,
“Those of us who choose to ignore or forget our nation’s worst sins remain locked in the past, consigned to the ever present, unable to move forward, imprisoned by too-often-invisible transgressions.”
Ironically a slave holding, declaration of Independence writing paradox of a man, none other than America’s third president Thomas Jefferson, is generally and erroneously credited with coining the quote, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” He did however write “all men are created equal.” Meaning of course white men and not deigning to include women of any color.
But whoever said “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” first is still correct.
Juneteenth should be a day for each of us to celebrate the pursuit of justice and much more importantly, to learn or relearn that fundamental lesson of its history — that freedom can never be taken for granted, justice does not roll down unless we push it, and each of us must remain engaged in civic life from the grassroots on up to ensure that we and future generations can continue the long march to equality and justice for all.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.