Johnny C. Johnson

As one who has sat at the feet of my ancestors retelling the stories of enslavement and emancipation and the vision that they had for the future while celebrating the federally declared holiday designated as Juneteenth, I attempted to sit where my ancestors sat and look at the future they envisioned from today’s perspective.

From a historical perspective, the Emancipation Proclamation was never inclusive of freedom, but rather an expedient way to demobilize the effects of slavery upon the Confederate economy by unleashing the enslaved from the bonds of physical slavery. The enslaved were no longer vehicles of degradation, a source of economic advancement, or tools that could be used in helping the Confederate states secure victory over those who were not proponents of slavery. The Civil War was a war based on ideology, shall men be free, or should they be enslaved and used for the economic benefit of others? That could be a point for debate, but let’s move on.

Johnny C. Johnson

In the early stages of the Civil War, the North was not victorious in many battles, and it seemed that outcome would be in doubt. On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared freedom for those enslaved people in Confederate states. This was not inclusive of border states. It was a means to limit the economic and physical power of the Confederate states by negating the use of their most powerful resource — enslaved African Americans. As the war progressed this word was not communicated to the 250,000 slaves who were in the state of Texas. On June 19, 1865, this news of freedom was translated to these enslaved people. Thus, the beginning of Emancipation to Juneteenth, which is today a federal holiday.

This announcement of freedom was the culmination of the freedom promised by the U.S. Constitution, exemplified by the exploits of Harriet Tubman and others and proclaimed by the time’s greatest orator for freedom, Frederick Douglass. But if the enslaved were now considered free, what did that freedom entail? Many were forced to work for the same masters who enslaved them, so “freedom” now for many wasn’t any different than the freedom then.

The question now arose of how to enfranchise those who for 144 years had been relegated not to being second-class citizens but to being noncitizens. To address centuries-old injustices that must be set right, the Reconstruction Amendments were seen as the legislative tools to correct the course of the ship called the U.S. Constitution. So, the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments sought to level the playing field by incorporating the right given to all “white” men — that of citizenship, and all its precedent rights and privileges. The 13th Amendment forbade chattel slavery across the United States and every territory under its control except as criminal punishment. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including formerly enslaved people. It provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws,” extending the provisions of the Bill of Rights to all states.

Section 1 reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The 15th Amendment proclaimed that the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2 reads, “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Hence freedom, not emancipation had been extended to all formerly enslaved African Americans.

But what of this newly gained freedom would it set right the 153 years of suffering, death, separation of families, and no pay for your labor? Those questions are being constantly debated as we attempt to move to a more equitable and just society.

We cannot fully discuss real freedom without a mention of Jim Crow and all its tentacles in thwarting the freedoms guaranteed to all by the Constitution which we proclaim as the tenet of democracy. Democracy thus became a political Walmart in which there were constant “rollbacks” to satisfy cost-conscious consumers.

Let us look at the recently celebrated Juneteenth 2024 and determine if these freedoms that so many of our ancestors died for, fought for, and prayed for are evident today. Affirmative action — a tool to make American society equitable after centuries of inequality — is gone. The right to vote, gone, and equal protection under the law, gone. With the probable election of a president who currently espouses the demise of all things inherent in a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” democracy, along with its mandated freedoms seems to be dissipating like smoke in the air.

As Frederick Douglass so spoke in his Independence Day Speech in 1852, “What means the 4th of July to the Negro,” being aware of all that the Negro had done in and for America, and yet when it came to reaping the inherent benefits as citizens, those benefits were rendered “null and void.”

Do we define freedom as a celebration of a holiday that is in name only? Or do we, as our ancestors did, seek to be incorporated into the spectrum of being human with all the rights and rewards germane to being human?

I sincerely honor the sacrifices of those ancestors who came before me, but as their work was never-ending, so should ours be for the future generations. We shall have to utter no longer the words “free at last, free at last” but that these words be embedded in the hearts of our children for generations to come.

I wonder if Frederick Douglass were alive today, what would he say that Juneteenth means to the Negro when we are still seeking rights denied and rights being abrogated — which he constantly and vehemently spoke against.

More from Johnson:When it comes to hate, America stands at the crossroads – and in the crosshairs

More:The truth about slavery in Erie County in the 19th century

Many today revel in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and defer to the constantly escaping dream, but fail to heed the condemnation of a nation whose words and deeds have fallen short of what is contained in what many consider a sacred document. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,'” King said. But we refuse to believe that the Bank of Justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

I leave with you the words of America’s eminent poet, Langston Hughes, written in 1935: “Let America be America again.”

“Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold!

Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be— the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!”

Johnny C. Johnson is a retired Erie School District teacher.