Juneteenth (June 19) marks the day in 1865 when U.S. federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure all African Americans were freed. The troops’ arrival came a full two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed.
In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t instantly free enslaved people. The proclamation only applied to places under Confederate control and not to slave-holding border states or rebel areas already under Union control. Literacy for enslaved Black people had been illegal in many states and written documents carrying such news were controlled by wealthy white people. That meant that any information needed by Black citizens—included news of legal freedom—could be (and was) controlled and manipulated.
However, as U.S. Northern troops advanced into the Confederate South, many enslaved people fled behind Union lines. Others Black people continued to be held in bondage and worked for their white owners for nearly six years after the proclamation was signed. Still, as news spread across Texas, those people freed from bondage celebrated with their families and communities, and an annual time of remembrance and jubilee was born.
Today, Juneteenth is a federally recognized holiday, and many African Americans (and allies) commemorate Juneteenth through family gatherings, community cookouts and picnics, cultural and educational events, worship and prayer, and collective action.
The symbolic meaning of the delayed emancipation for Black Americans is pertinent to the Christian church and the fuller society today. Like the story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:1-44, Luke 21:1-4, wherein Jesus praises a widow for giving her two cents aka mites at Temple, saying she has given more than the rich, as she has given her whole livelihood), we serve a God who bids us leave no one behind. Our call is to take the Good News of Christ’s salvation, liberation, and release for all people into the world. Yet, systemic racism in church and society continues to impact our ability to be faithful followers of Christ and the repairers of the breach.
As we still, in this moment, grapple with anti-Blackness and other forms of racism, Juneteenth reminds us that the quest for liberty, flourishing, and justice for all remains elusive. The events of the past few years painfully illustrate this point: from the murders of Black and Brown people, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, to the dramatic rise in hate crimes aimed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and to attempts to repress Latinx immigrants. All demonstrate that systemic and individual racism still costs souls and lives.
As writer Jess McIntosh writes, “We are still in the process of ending slavery, and nowhere near ending its effects.”
Let Juneteenth be a time when people of Christian faith—especially white Christians—recommit to, evoke, stand on, and live out the promises of God to deliver all people everywhere from bondage and oppression. Just as God walked the Israelites to freedom and flourishing, God stands on the side of oppressed people in this moment. And God’s people are called to roll down justice (Amos 5:24) and to model and champion righteousness like an endless stream.