For growing numbers of African Americans, today is Juneteenth, a day to celebrate the end of slavery and historical new beginnings as free citizens of the United States of America.
The increasing popularity of Juneteenth celebrations illumines important facts about African Americans, American history, and the persistent hypocrisy that has for so long defined our national character.
The great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, defined this hypocrisy in a lengthy Independence Day speech at Rochester, N.Y., in 1852. Speaking to a white audience, Douglass, a former slave, said:
“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn . . .
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.
“To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; . . . your shouts of equality, hollow mockery; your prayers, your sermons, and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy . . .”
At the time Douglass was speaking, there were more than 3 million black slaves throughout the country, with tens of millions more having died in the horrendous processes of African slave trading known as Middle Passage. More than a decade later, Douglass would go on to become an adviser to Abraham Lincoln and a proponent of the enlistment of blacks to fight in the Civil War.
In January 1863, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation, however, did not free all slaves. It only promised freedom to those slaves living in Confederate states. As a matter of historical fact, slaves were not granted full freedom until December 1865, with the passage of the 13th Amendment.