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Michael Meeropol: The Promise Of Juneteenth In 2020

June 19th is an important date in American history.  For my brother, myself and our families, it is the anniversary of the judicial murder of our parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, 67 years ago.   What he and I lived through as a six-year old and a ten-year-old back in 1953 never goes away.   [Calling it murder is not hyperbole.   For the facts underlying the reasoning behind this conclusion as well as details of what actually happened in the case, see Meeropol, Michael, “‘A Spy Who Turned His Family In’: Revisiting David Greenglass and the Rosenberg Case,” American Communist History Volume 17, Issue 2 (May 31, 2018) .]

However, for this June 19th, in the context of weeks of demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter movement and their allies, many white Americans are perhaps for the first time, becoming aware of the June 19th  that took place in 1865 -- “Juneteenth.”

[In a typical display of dishonest bombast, on June 18 Trump claimed that he made Juneteenth popular --- even though his administration had issued proclamations celebrating Juneteenth in previous years.   I suppose in a perverse way that’s actually true.  The fact that he initially scheduled his Tulsa rally for June 19 and then abruptly changed the date to June 20 in the wake of outrage that he would disrespect Juneteenth with --- basically --- a racist rally for “law and order” did alert many white Americans to the importance of Juneteenth.]

Long celebrated by African Americans, Juneteenth commemorates the official reading of “General Order 3” by Union General Gordon Granger.   The day before, on June 18, 1865 General Granger had arrived in Galveston,Texas with 2000 federal troops to occupy what had previously been rebel territory.  The next day, Granger announced emancipation:   The proclamation read in part: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Thus, on Juneteenth, the last of the slaves held in bondage in the eleven states of the Confederacy were finally freed.   The terms of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation were finally enforced.   

It is important to understand that Lincoln’s Proclamation had been issued as a war measure during 1862.  It only applied to areas of the South in rebellion against the United States.  Though there was little likelihood of it happening, if a state in the Confederacy had abandoned the war effort and surrendered to the Union before December 31, 1862, they would have legally been able to keep their slaves.   Border states like Kentucky which had not left the union were not touched by the emancipation proclamation.   Though many slaves in Kentucky freed themselves by running away during the Civil War, full emancipation had to await the ratification of the 13th Amendment in late 1865.  

Texas was one of the states affected by the Emancipation Proclamation but though legally free as of January 1, 1863, no slaves within the state of Texas achieved freedom until Juneteenth.   [In the oral version of this commentary, I had erroneously stated that the Proclamation went into effect January 1, 1864 --- a minor mistake but still a bit embarrassing!]

Unfortunately for the newly freed slaves of Texas and the rest of the South, the period when they enjoyed full civil rights was very short.  Despite the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments that guaranteed citizenship to all persons, including ex slaves, and the right to vote to male ex-slaves, the period when black Americans could exercise these rights was very short.  In the state of Texas, the so-called “reconstruction government” based on a coalition of white Republicans and the ex-slaves only took state power in 1870 and lasted only till 1872.   With the victory of Texas Democrats that year, Texas began the process of reversing the gains achieved by African Americans since Juneteenth.  Ultimately, disenfranchisement and segregation became the rule and for African Americans a period of suppression and oppression followed – especially in the south but not only in the south.   By the beginning of the 20th century, black Americans had been relegated to second class citizenship.   They would not begin to make progress till after World War II.

[Historian Eric Foner’s book Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (NY:  Harper and Row Publishers, 1988) is still the best single volume on this tragic period in American history when black Americans were first promised equal rights to participate in the political process and then for a time were actually able to do so.  Unfortunately, their hopes were destroyed because of growing (Northern) white indifference and (Southern) white terrorism.]

Beginning with halting steps away from segregation and inequality in the 1940s (Major League baseball began to integrate in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger and Larry Doby became a Cleveland Indian.  President Truman proclaimed the integration of the armed forces in 1948) and accelerating after the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools and the Montgomery Bus Boycott on 1955, the United States went through a Second Reconstruction in the 1960s culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.   Once again, just as after Juneteenth, black Americans made great strides toward equal opportunity.  Unfortunately, as I documented at great length in my previous commentary, just as the Reconstruction governments that took power (briefly) in the South after Juneteenth were confronted by intense (often violent) opposition, the progress made by black people beginning in the middle of the 1960s was hotly contested.  Though the black population in the South got the vote, the white population of the South began to shift its political allegiances to the Republican Party whose standard bearer in 1964 (Barry Goldwater) had voted against both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  

[A fascinating real life example of this shift was the career of former South Carolina Governor (later Senator) Strom Thurmond.   In 1948, he was Governor of South Carolina.  He had been so incensed that the Democratic Party had adopted a plank in favor of integration at the national convention that nominated Harry Truman that he led a walkout from the Convention and the Democratic Party.  Together with other racist allies, he created what was called the “States Rights Democratic Party.”  He ran for President that Fall, hoping to deny President Truman sufficient electoral votes to win.  Though Thurmond won the electoral votes of South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, he did not win enough to deny Truman a majority.  In 1954, he came back to the Democratic Party, winning a Senate seat which he held for over 48 years.  In 1964 he abruptly switched  parties and became a Republican.  He supported Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson.  Goldwater carried only a handful of Southern states plus his home state of Arizona but the movement of white voters to the Republican Party was quickly becoming a flood.  Thurmond remained a right-wing mainstay in the United States Senate till 2002.]

As I emphasized in my last commentary, Richard Nixon adopted what was called a “southern strategy” to win election in 1968 (and to avoid losing southern electoral votes to the openly racist Governor of Alabama, George Wallace).   Stoking white resentment against black progress became a major political weapon wielded by Republicans from that point forward.   In terms of policy, the war on crime and the war on drugs beginning in the 1970s and culminating in the crime bill of 1994 (passed and signed under a Democratic Administration) led to mass incarceration --- disproportionately imprisoning black men.  For details see Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow.   Second, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was eviscerated by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder [570 U.S. 529 (2013)].   This ruling opened the door to a massive assault on the right to vote under the guise of protecting against (non-existent) voter fraud.  It was so egregious that President Obama took the unprecedented step of publicly disagreeing with that ruling during one of his State of the Union speeches.  Suppression of African American votes probably contributed to the victory of Donald Trump in Wisconsin in 2016 and the defeat of Stacey Abrams for Governor of Georgia in 2018.   Turning to police misconduct, vis a vis African-Americans, when Trump took over the Presidency, his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, moved to end the various consent decrees that the Obama Justice Department had negotiated with various localities whose behavior towards African Americans had permitted police violence against these fellow Americans to proceed with impunity.

Just as during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, the rights of black Americans are being contested by a resentful white population.   Progress made beginning in the 1960s is being rolled back.   Please note --- I am not saying that all whites are racist --- just as I am not saying that all police officers are potential murderers of black men.  What I am saying is that too many white Americans are not actively involved in combatting this insidious infection of too many of our fellow citizens.   I am also saying that too many honest police officers are unwilling or too afraid to explicitly confront racist and criminal behavior on the part of that minority of out and out racists among their fellow officers.   That cliché “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for the good to do nothing,” is very appropriate.   That warning is the message of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail in which he explicitly calls out moderates who allow injustice to occur even though they themselves are not actively supporting the perpetrators of injustice.

So what does America need to do to reverse the current reactionary trend and resume the march towards equality that began with the freeing of slaves on Juneteenth?   It’s a no-brainer.   There must be a qualitative change in the relationship between black Americans and the larger society, most specifically, our criminal justice system.    It has been most gratifying to see polling data that shows that the majority of Americans, including white Americans, now see that the relationship between African Americans and the criminal justice system is one of fundamental unfairness.   The fact that the demonstrations all over the country have been completely multicultural with large percentages of whites participating along with the various communities of color – not just African Americans but Latinos and Native Americans and Asian Americans --shows that unlike in previous periods of unrest after police attacks on African Americans (say the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014) the vast majority of Americans GET IT.   However, let’s not kid ourselves.  This current sea change in public opinion by itself will not save black lives.  For that, we have to change the culture of policing.

There needs to be communication up and down the ranks of every police force in the country that fellow officers and local politicians will no longer engage in a knee-jerk defense of individual police committing crimes against black people.  I agree that the percentage of truly bad apples on police forces is probably small.  However, most “good cops” look the other way or acquiesce in the defense of the indefensible.  In addition -- and this is by no means certain --- there needs to be evidence that the dishonest boiler-plate used by officers who have shot civilians --- “I feared for my life” --- will not be automatically believed by (mostly white) juries.   Until that happens, black Americans will be like the slaves of Texas before Juneteenth --- free officially but not really.

Meanwhile, Trump thinks he has figured out a way for him and his supporters to celebrate and encourage the white backlash against black progress.  He is holding the aforementioned rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the worst massacre of black Americans since the Civil War.  This occurred in 1921 and left an entire neighborhood destroyed, hundreds dead, and a prosperous local black community devastated.   [There are a number of scholarly treatments of the Tulsa massacre of 1921.  One of the most highly praised is Brophy, Alfred L. (2002), Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Race Reparations, and Reconciliation(NY:  Oxford University Press).  The state of Oklahoma is developing a state-wide curriculum to make sure all students in Oklahoma know the story of the massacre.]

Trump’s decision to hold a rally in Tulsa, even though Oklahoma is experiencing dangerously high levels of new infections of COVID-19, makes it clear that his staff (he is probably too ignorant and stupid to think this clearly) wants to send a strong message to his white supremacist supporters that he will be a bulwark against black rioters and criminals – the people he called thugs after the demonstrations began in Minneapolis.    The location of the rally reminds me that Ronald Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three Civil Rights workers had been murdered in 1964.  Reagan stressed states’ rights in that speech.  Trump will undoubtedly stress law and order at his rally.

On June 16, Trump paid lip service to black demands for justice.  He signed an executive order containing a lot of generalities about “best practices” in policing.   [The order is entitled “Safe Policing for Safe Communities” and it was issued by the White House on June 16, 2020 for those who want to waste their time reading it!]  There are no teeth in any of the “suggestions” laid down because only those departments that wish to be “credentialed” (whatever that means) must adopt even the most obvious reforms, like banning choke-holds.  Meanwhile, the true Trump view came through in a rambling Rose Garden speech which was heavy on --- you guessed it --- Law and Order. 

Here is a direct quote:  "They [the American people] demand law and order,  … They may not say it, they may not be talking about it, but that's what they want. Some of them don't even know that's what they want, but that's what they want." [see https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/06/16/authoritarian-tirade-trump-claims-americans-want-law-and-order-policing-whether-they]   In fact, polling data indicates that unlike the reaction of white Americans to the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 after the wake of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a majority of white Americans recognize that there is a structural inequality in the treatment of their black fellow citizens by police in this country.   For details on the dramatic changes in public opinion see Cohn, Nate and Kevin Quealy, “How Public Opinion Has Moved on Black Lives MatterThe New York Times, June 10, 2020. There is widespread support for the demonstrations that erupted in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

We have, of course, seen this movie before.  Trump’s demand for law and order is an echo of the theme of the presidential campaign of the racist George Wallace back in 1968.  As I mentioned above, Richard Nixon jumped on the same “law and order” bandwagon and was able to win enough electoral votes to attain the Presidency in that election.   Many people inclined to vote for Wallace decided that Nixon was close enough to their position.  They recognized that a Law and Order platform was a promise to go slow on civil rights for black Americans.   In 1968, the combined votes for Wallace and Nixon totaled 55 percent.

Listen closely to Trump’s speech at Tulsa (or read about it after the fact).  He is trying to make the racist playbook that began to be used in 1968 work again.  Luckily, the polls show that at least a majority of white Americans aren’t buying.   It is up to us to make sure that Trump’s efforts to stir up a 2020 version of white backlash against black progress will not succeed this time around.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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