Tens of thousands of Americans on Friday marked the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the abolishment of slavery with anti-racism marches, peaceful rallies, bike rides and music parties celebrating blackness held across the country.
The Juneteenth celebrations took place against a backdrop of unprecedented nationwide protests demanding racial justice sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who was killed by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes.
Juneteenth is not a federal holiday, though 47 states and Washington DC do mark it, but for many in the black community, Juneteenth rather than 4 July is considered the true independence day. It’s also known as freedom, black independence and emancipation day.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, celebrations were combined with a homage to Floyd in an early morning five-mile route for runners, walkers and cyclists which ended at the site where he was killed. A reparations rally was planned for the afternoon at the Minnesota state capitol with organizers demanding the murder of Floyd be recognised as both a racist and economic issue.
In Atlanta, protesters gathered in front of the Georgia Bar Association and marched to demand justice for Ahmaud Arbery – the 25-year-old unarmed black man shot dead while out for a run by a white father and son, while a third white man helped corner him and videoed the killing. Also in Atlanta, college and university students led a march which ended with a voter registration drive and concert.
Al Sharpton, a veteran civil rights activist and baptist preacher who spoke at Floyd’s funeral service, delivered a speech at a Juneteenth celebration in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where in 1921 a racist white mob destroyed the “Black Wall Street” community. Donald Trump had initially planned a campaign rally in Tulsa for 19 June but later rescheduled to Saturday after learning about the significance of the holiday.
“Juneteenth is both a celebration and a reminder, a commemoration,” he told a gathered crowd. “It reminds us that it took almost three years after the signing of the emancipation proclamation for people in Texas to even know that slavery was over.”
“So it is only proper for me to be here to show everyone how far we have come and how far we have yet to go,” he went on. “We must understand the litany of pain that Black Americans have suffered.”
Juneteenth, which combines the words “June” and “19th”, is the symbolic day in 1865 when the Union army major general Gordon Granger read out Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery on a plantation in Galveston, Texas.
The proclamation had been signed by the president more than two years earlier, but had little effect on many enslaved African Americans held in confederate territory. Slavery was outlawed nationwide a few months later when the 13th amendment was ratified.
Dozens of events took place across New York City’s five boroughs as the mayor, Bill de Blasio, who has been widely criticized for the violent crackdown by police on protesters in recent weeks, announced that from next year Juneteenth would be an official city and school holiday.
In Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, hundreds of people donning face masks celebrated American black identity and culture with African music, food and art. On the West Harlem Pier, a male led gathering called ‘‘protect our queens” demanded justice for Breonna Taylor and other women of color killed by police. Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, was shot dead in March by police who entered her home in Louisville, Kentucky without warning.
Increased awareness of the holiday comes amid growing calls for profound change to tackle systemic racism in American society which impacts every sphere of life for black and brown people including education, housing, voting rights, health, policing, environmental justice, incarceration and economic inequity.
A number of companies including Twitter and Target gave employees the day off amid a mounting focus on the role played by the private sector in maintaining economic racial injustice. But the holiday is still not universally known about and is not taught in many schools.
On Friday, senate Democrats including former presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, introduced legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday. It’s expected to face opposition from Republicans who control the senate.
Elsewhere in the country, civil rights leaders joined events and spoke out against injustices. Activist and scholar Angela Davis appeared at a march that drew thousands in Oakland, California, shutting down the city’s industrial port.
“If I had not chosen to become a university professor my next choice would have been to be a dock worker,” Davis said. “In order to be part of the most radical union in the country.”
“Thank you for shutting down the ports today, on Juneteenth. You represent the potential and power of the labor movement,” she added. Film-maker Boots Riley also addressed the crowd.
Oakland’s local longshoremen’s union had arranged a strike at 29 ports up and down the west coast. The union workers were joined by a motorcycle brigade, a car caravan, a fleet of cyclists, and thousands on foot.
Rather than processing cargo, “including the shirt you’re wearing, the phone you’re carrying”, said Sweets Ward, a longshoreman with the ILWU Local 10, workers joined a massive march from the Port of Oakland to Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown, named after the 22-year-old Black man who was killed by police in 2009.
The union had organized similar demonstrations after Grant was killed, more than a decade ago – and many since. “This moment feels a little different,” said Trent Willis, president of the ILWU Local 10. “The response for this call is just astronomical … We have done similar things before, but this is like our last call to action – on steroids.”
Oliver Laughland contributed reporting