Why revolutionaries commemorate Juneteenth

Telijah Patterson delivered this talk, first published on Liberation School, in Harlem, NYC on June 3, 2016.

Born into struggle

I would first like to introduce myself and talk about where I come from. I am an educator working at an elementary school in the South Bronx. The Black and Brown faces of the South Bronx make me nostalgic. I feel like I’m almost back home in Texas.

I was born in Houston and raised in the Southside’s third ward neighborhood. The third ward is the center of Houston’s working-class African-American community. I was raised in a house on Dowling Street, a few blocks away from where the People’s Party II—which eventually became the Houston Chapter of the Black Panther Party—was established. The Houston Chapter of the Black Panther party worked alongside the MAYO group, a Mexican community activist group and the John Brown Revolutionary League, another group of committed community activists.

Black and Brown unity

When I was fourteen my family moved to the Northside, another inner city area. On the Northside, the neighborhood demographics shifted. I was now “a minority” in a predominately Latin@ neighborhood, comprised mostly of Mexicans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans. However, I never felt like “a minority.” In fact, as a Black woman, I refuse to use this term because it makes us feel weak when we, working and oppressed people, are, in fact, the majority in society.

Although the ruling class tried to create a chasm between the Black and Latin@ communities, I always felt a connection with my Brown sisters and brothers. Many of my schoolmates were undocumented and were forced to work low-wage jobs to help support their families while attending high school. The connection between what modern-day migrant farm workers experience, working tirelessly under inhumane conditions, is very similar to what my own ancestors experienced. In my family, we organically made this connection, joking that Blacks built America and Latin@s are renovating it.

Mexican and Black American unity runs deep. In Texas, which was originally indigenous land, then later a Spanish colony named Mexico, runaway slaves and indigenous people intermarried and collaborated on the underground railroad, assisting escaped Black slaves flee to Mexico where their freedom was guaranteed.

The editor of the Austin-based newspaper The Texas Democrat, John S. Ford, estimated that more than 4,000 slaves had run away from Texas by 1855. The Caultlana Valley in Mexico, home to the important revolutionary figure Emiliano Zapata, was estimated to be 50 percent Afro-Mexican in late colonial times. Historians have noted that Emiliano Zapata was likely of Afro-Mexican heritage. His legacy of agrarian revolution and popular independence continue to inspire groups like the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico to this day.

This rich history of Black and Latino solidarity was never taught to us in public schools. In fact, the high school I attended was named after the slave-owner and president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. There is an ongoing struggle today to rename the school in order to reflect the brave histories of the students who attend. Maybe we should rename it Emiliano Zapata or Juneteenth High School for reasons that I will explain now.

The origins of Juneteenth

The history of Juneteenth is of special importance to the Black Texan community and the entire Black nation. It began in Galveston, Texas, where my great grandmother still resides. “Juneteenth” celebrations stem from “Decoration Day,” a day in which newly freed slaves and others commemorated the sacrifice of soldiers, Black and white, who fought to defeat slavery. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that slaves were now free.  This was actually a full two months after General Lee and the Confederacy surrendered in April of that year.  The news did not come to the enslaved people until well after the war had officially ended.

Juneteenth is sometimes referred to as “the July 4th of Black America.” It certainly is a thousand times more relevant and revolutionary than July 4th for Black people and all progressive people. In 1776, the majority of Black people were still legally enslaved and tactically supported the British against their white American slave-owners. The defeat of the British actually returned many escaped slaves into bondage, and the Constitution, written thereafter, protected the slave system for another 90 years. It took another war, the Civil War—the bloodiest war in U.S. history—and the mass intervention of Black people in their own history, for the principles of the American Revolution to have any real meaning for us.

The elites of Texas, the descendants of the slavocracy, stripped “Decoration Day” of all its political ties to Black Liberation. Blunting our legacy of resistance, they rebranded the historic date “Memorial Day.” Defying the status-quo, my family and community celebrate Juneteenth to this day, with music, dance and community events, and the consumption of red velvet cupcakes and strawberry soda to represent the blood lost during the Civil War.

Who really won the Civil War?

As of 1862, two years into the Civil War, the Confederacy was defeating the Union army. Fighting on their home territory, Southerners were mobilized in defense of “their way of life.” The plantation system was adapted to meet the South’s war effort. Having a massive slave labor force at their disposal was a great military and economic advantage for the Confederacy.

Lincoln originally decided that a more measured approach to slavery would retain the loyalty of the Border States. He feared, the Union would lose support and face a greater Confederate rebellion if it abolished slavery in states such as Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. The mass action of the Black nation and the exigencies of war forced Lincoln’s hand.

Faced with pending defeat, President Lincoln and the Union Generals adopted a new strategy that only a year before was unthinkable—they decided to declare all the slaves in enemy held territory free.

On January 1, 1863 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  A little over a month later on February 16, 1863, “good men of African descent” were called upon to enlist in the 54th Regiment of the Union Army. Doing so both added power to the Union army, but also dealt a huge blow to the Southern labor force and Confederate army. Historian W.E.B. Du Bois called it “a general strike” that involved upwards of half a million laborers. Du Bois wrote:

“The Negroes became valuable as laborers, and doubly valuable as withdrawing labor from the South. After the first foolish year when the South woke up to the fact that there was going to be a real, long war, and the North realized just what war meant in blood and money, the whole relation of the North to the Negro and the Negro to the North changed.”

Enslaved people never waited for an invitation to escape, to sabotage and spy on the Confederate Army, to pass information to the north, or to take up arms. But this decision from on high gave all the energy and action from below a new level of organization.

Lincoln was no liberator

Lincoln was far from an abolitionist. One moment, he spoke of his philosophical opposition to slavery and the next he struck deals with the slave powers. It is obvious that Lincoln’s commitment to capitalism far outweighed his commitment to freeing slaves. It is even speculated that the reason slaves were freed later in Texas is because soldiers waited until the end of the last harvest so that Southern slave owners could continue exploiting slave labor. The Black plight in America has always been about money.

The Emancipation Proclamation was not everything it was billed to be, as it only set free those slaves in Southern states that were in rebellion against the North. It ignored the slaves in parts of Louisiana that were already under Union control. It only declared the slaves “free” in areas that the Confederacy still controlled. Far from a humanitarian gesture, it was used as a way to wreak havoc behind enemy lines. The declaration itself did not immediately lead to freedom. It required the continuation of the war to do that—as the Union army advanced, those enslaved people were declared legally free.

It is also important to dismantle the myth that the North was a beacon of freedom. Slavery existed in New York since the 1620s, when it was a Dutch colony, all the way up until 1827. In other words, since its foundation, New York had 200 years of slavery—and we’re now at 190 years without slavery. In his recent book Gateway to Freedom, Columbia University historian and Pulitzer Prize–winner Eric Foner makes the argument that even after slavery was abolished in 1827 in New York, slavery remained central to New York’s economic prosperity with money and goods freely crossing the Mason-Dixon line. New York was the center of the largest insurance companies, banks, the sugar refineries, and so on, which were all heavily invested in slavery in the South and the Caribbean. Abolitionists and the Black nation battled slave catchers for the soul of New York. While New York served as a haven for runaway slaves to escape to New England and Canada, it was also where slave-catchers freely battled to return and cash in on the “stolen property” or “contraband” as we were called.

The Second American Revolution

Up until the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, people of African descent had only been put to work as laborers in Union camps for typically sub-standard wages supposedly because they were lousy fighters. However, by July 1863 the all Black 54th Regiment had grown exponentially and enlisted 1,000 men. By the end of the war, in May 1865 there were 167 such units arming nearly 200,000 men of African descent. One in every three of these soldiers sacrificed their lives for the Union victory. The North’s victory stood on the shoulders of these freedom fighters.

This marked a decisive turning point in the Black freedom movement and transformed society for decades to come. Despite all its limitations and unevenness, the Civil War was the beginning of “the Second American Revolution.” It was the beginning of the overthrow of dominant property relations and the seizure of the massive wealth of the 80,000 white elites who comprised the slave-owning class. The five-year war, with estimated losses of over 365,000 on the Union side and over 290,000 on the Confederate side, decimated the old ruling class.

History as a weapon

According to American mythology, which masquerades as history, the “benevolent Old Honest Abe” freed my people.

Just the thought of that old scrawny white man freeing my great great grandparents is both obnoxious and downright asinine. No white person has ever freed us or will ever free us. We freed ourselves and can again, today, fight to free ourselves. Teaching the history of great white men who immaculately “made history” is the dominant trend in American education; the truth is that only masses of people mobilized at the bottom of society ever made history.

The concept that the population must “remember the sacrifice” of U.S. service members, without a critical reflection on the wars themselves did not emerge by accident. It came about in the Jim Crow period as the Northern and Southern ruling classes sought to reunite the country around apolitical mourning, which required erasing the “divisive” issues of slavery and Black citizenship.

Over the late 1800s and early 1900s, the white supremacist vision of the war—that the Civil War was a tragic struggle between brothers—won out. The emancipationist version of the Civil War, and the heroic participation of African Americans in their own liberation was erased from popular culture, the history books and official commemoration.

This is why Guinean revolutionary Amílcar Cabral wrote that history was a weapon. In the hands of the oppressor, history dupes us; in the hands of the people, history can help forge our freedom.

The Black Freedom Movement

Black Reconstruction was the continuation of this economic, social, and political revolution but was turned back by the collusion of the old slavocracy and the northern capitalists, both of whom feared the rise of an empowered Black and multinational working class.

Du Bois’s 746-page “Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880” is a vital resource for all students of Black history. Du Bois charts how the Northern ruling class turned its back on newly freed slaves and the South imposed the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws on the Black population. These laws limited the capital gained by Black people through a social system of white supremacy. The old slavocracy and Northern capitalist elite’s returned to the old way of ordering society, managing class conflict, distributing services and resources and monopolizing power.

It was not until the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s that the Black Freedom Movement dismantled Jim Crow. The movement did not simply want an end to segregation, as Black people and white people interacted daily in thousands of ways. This movement called for equality before law, equal services, equal housing and access to the best schools around, ultimately to end second-class citizenship.

A revolutionary view of integration

Today, can we claim that Black America has truly been liberated when there are more Black people incarcerated in U.S. jails than there were Black people on plantations in 1861, not to mention the millions of Black youth who are both without work or not attending school?

Despite the fall of legal segregation, inequality remains the status quo.

The socialist view is in sharp contrast to the patronizing liberal view that suggests integration by itself will end inequality. For example, take the idea that predominantly Black schools need to be infused with white students to be saved. Interestingly, I had a conversation with a coworker who comes from a very wealthy and privileged background about how the children are falling behind academically in our school, a school that is comprised mostly of children of color. She mentioned her struggles with education and credited her completion of school to hiring tutors and accessing greater resources. She turned to me and said “I hate to say this, but it all boils down to money.” Indeed, the problem is one of resources, and how schools and neighborhoods are incorporated into the capitalist economy. Capitalism is based on exploitation and white supremacy.

Liberal politicians claim that integration is the answer to inequality. We disagree. So what is the solution?

We need a system wherein all citizens are guaranteed housing, a job, a free education, and healthcare amongst other things. We need a system that is ruled by the working people—the people who make society run.

Long live Juneteenth!

As Juneteenth celebrations begin let’s keep in mind our original question, who really liberated the slaves?

If the Union Army was losing before the entrance of Black servicemen into the Union army, it’s obvious who the liberators were. The participation of half a million slaves, 200,000 as soldiers, in the Union effort was the decisive factor in the war. Recognizing Juneteenth nationwide, as a day to talk about the real legacy and overthrow of slavery, would be a real advance in consciousness compared to the hollow, patriotic, and racist federal holidays we now have.

My people, shoulder to shoulder with the solidarity of others, liberated ourselves and today we need to liberate ourselves again. No one can do it for us.

Ultimately, this is about more than the Black struggle; we work for the revolutionary transformation of the United States. To undo racist inequality and national oppression requires taking down the capitalist system upon which it is founded and deeply embedded. This is why we continue the great slogan of the global social movement: Lenin’s clarion call “Workers and the oppressed people of the world, unite!” Our enemy is the same and in unity lies our victory!

Featured photo: Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900, Texas. Credit: Grace Murray.