Juneteenth: The Legacy and Lessons of Slavery’s End

In the photo above, we see a group of people out in their “Sunday best” for a very good reason. They’re celebrating a great victory for human dignity, one for the likes of which there are few comparisons in history. Given their advanced age, the Southern locale, and the year of 1900, it’s almost certain some or all of them had once been slaves. But, they are slaves no more, and this is something that they and we have every reason to remember with joy.

Juneteenth is something few of us recall but all of us should celebrate. Even though it’s on the books as an official holiday in dozens of states, most of the time it’s barely noticed outside the African American community, and sometimes not even there. Growing up in Dixie, where seemingly every other facet of history relating to the Civil War is remembered and revered, I can’t say as I ever heard anyone mention Juneteenth until well into adulthood. Having since migrated across the Midwest and now West, I don’t know that I’d have known much about it no matter where I’d been raised.

Happily, each year it seems that more and more people and organizations are recognizing the date’s importance to American history. While up to now, it has often been written off by the bulk of the nation as “a black thing,” its significance extends beyond the confines of a single ethnicity to the nature of humanity and the essence of Christian ethics. The end of slavery was an enormous event, both as a simple historical occasion and an instance of moral restoration. Therefore, as the anniversary of that moment, Juneteenth is worth commemorating with vigor.

With some good reason, most of us think of the Emancipation Proclamation as the moment that ended slavery in America. Ironically, that historic document didn’t free much of anyone since it didn’t apply in pro-Union slave states like Kentucky and Missouri but only in territories still in rebellion against the Federal government as of January 1, 1863. And, since the whole point of the Confederacy was that they didn’t want to do what Washington ordered, I can’t imagine many slaveholders in Mississippi and Georgia heard the news and set their captives free.

This is not to belittle the Proclamation. While the rhetoric in the lead up to the War Between the States centered on preserving or dissolving the Union, Lincoln’s bold move in freeing the slaves may have enraged his Confederate foes to the point of even greater determination, but it gave a new moral cause to the bloody strife. Now, instead of the abstract question of the relationship between national and state authority, the war became a holy quest to put an end to “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” and to raise America’s ethical practices to the height of its principles. A political revolution thereby transformed into a moral one.

Later still, as dramatized in the excellently done “Lincoln,” the much debated Thirteenth Amendment abolished all forms of involuntary servitude, first by the Congress in January 1865 and later by the states in December of that same year. With this act, the great compromise, both political and moral, to preserve the nascent United States in 1787 was undone on the ashes of the Confederate States in 1865. Such were the legal moves ending the “peculiar institution” which had bound America’s conscience in a morass of moral ambiguity.

It was, however, a practical event which inspired the later Juneteenth celebrations. President Lincoln might have proclaimed an end to slavery in 1862, and General Lee may have effectively ended the war at Appomattox, but it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that word that the diabolical practice was ended arrived in distant Texas. It was then that the implications of these earlier legal actions were made reality by “General Order 3” of Gordon Granger, the local US Army representative in the Lone Star State.

This was a great day in human history. Nearly 300 years after the first slaves were sold to English colonists on the Eastern Seaboard, slavery in Anglo-America was finished. One of the most egregious forms of human bondage ever practiced in human history was finally abolished.

This glorious moment of liberation did not occur in a vacuum but was the result of decades of efforts by activists of all stripes. Americans had the example from the “Mother Country” of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect who pushed for years and years against the economic, cultural, and political powers of Britain to ban first the slave trade in 1807 and then slavery all together in 1833. On our own shores, Americans could look to the likes Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, and even notable politicians like Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams.

The quest to end slavery was arguably the pivotal moment in American history. It was, after all, in reaction to the election of the abolitionist Republican Party candidate that the Confederacy was created in the first place. Oddly enough, the group most responsible for ending slavery as soon as it was were the people most dedicated to preserving it. Had the Southerners not seceded from the Union, it is highly unlikely that Lincoln ever would have had the political capital to abolish it.

That this repulsive institution was overthrown when all the financial and philosophical pressures of the day, not to mention a literal army, pushed in the other direction is a testament to the efforts of all those, famous and unknown, who prayed and hoped and wrote and spoke and bled and died for that day. If this liberation of 3.5 million human beings from inhuman degradation isn’t worth celebrating in the Land of Liberty and the church of Christ, then I don’t know what is.

Bear in mind, we must never let the happy ending undermine our understanding of what came before this end, nor should we whitewash the troubles that came later. As I’ve noted before, what was done in the modern United and Confederate States stands nearly on its own in terms of slavery in time. It was nothing less than a desecration, a despoilment of the very image of God and a violation of America’s own most dearly held principles.

For those of us who are Christians, we bear a special burden for this historical crime. It is not without justification that the watching world lays at the church door the accusation of complicity and encouragement of American Slavery. Some of the best and brightest of pastors and theologians lent their wisdom and authority not to relieve the burden of the oppressed but to justify slavery’s continuation by twisting God’s Word into something it never was meant to say. That these men of God could look on the cruelty of this favored moral flaw is cause enough for the church worldwide to remember with tears until the End.

But, just as a victory in a terrible war is cause for celebration, all the more so on account of the horrors of the now-ended conflict, so too should Juneteenth be a time for joy when recalling the elimination of human bondage after so many generations of injustice. We can and should rejoice that millions of our fellow Americans and, more importantly, our fellow human beings were released from this immoral detention. We can and should admire the fact that otherwise indifferent white Americans continued to lay down their lives by the tens of thousands even after Lincoln made it clear that Abolition was the endgame.

Even as we recognize the decidedly imperfect record of American history regarding race in the years after that first Juneteenth, and even as we continue to struggle with slavery’s legacy and its effects down to today, we can and should take the time to honor this wonderful day and to be inspired by its example to work for a more perfect union in our time.

Not only should we praise the memory of this past good work, but we should let it be the spark to lead us onward to new good deeds in the future. When faced with our moral crises, we can be inspired by the long years of effort expended by the Abolitionists around the world. It wasn’t an easy proposition and definitely not a popular one, yet they kept at it. They kept at their appointed task until that task was done. They were hated and mocked, belittled and shunned, even beaten and killed, all for the sake of a decidedly unwelcome truth.

Abolitionists found their voices silenced and messages censored by the powers that be. Politicians bent over backwards to fashion laws of ever-harsher natures to preserve the right to slavery. Cultural elites told them that “they” weren’t like “us” or as developed, so enslaving them didn’t matter. Businesses told them that advocating for African Americans was too disruptive and would cause undue financial hardship on individual masters and the economy as a whole.  Society claimed it was arrogant and intolerant for Abolitionists to impose their morality on others. Moralists argued that Africans were better off enslaved, and the enslavers had plenty of culturally-conforming clerics to excuse them and soothe any troubled conscience.

This is what the Abolitionists faced, yet they didn’t give up. They were driven by the understanding that the realities of American Slavery were irreconcilable to their Christian beliefs about the dignity of humanity and their American dreams about the centrality of liberty. They saw that the slave was as made in the image of God as anyone else and therefore as deserving of honor as themselves. They maintained their quest to spread the word of liberty, even if it meant upsetting the social order and being seen as imposing their beliefs on others.

Abolitionism wasn’t about being just another special interest group pushing their tribal identity; this was about the fundamentals of human nature. Some of them, former slaves themselves, put the lie to the conceit that race was a central component of anyone’s identity or that those of a particular ethnicity were more godly or wicked than another. Seeing in the other’s face a fellow son of Adam or daughter of Eve, as worthy of honor and needful of grace as they themselves, the justification for bondage was revealed to be as ephemeral and putrid as smoke.

Our battles may not be identical to those of the Abolitionists of the past, but our hope is the same. Our hope is that morality is not a fungible feature of the world but instead we can rely on the truths of our earthly existence derived from biblical revelation and human observation. Our hope is that the hard-edged nature of reality can, ever so gradually, undercut the pretentious claims of a given social fashion regarding ethical concerns. Our hope is that the seemingly overwhelming powers of a culture can push against the truth all they want and can appear utterly insurmountable, but the triumph of false philosophies is never as inevitable they proclaim.

The same obsession for the truth and determination to see it told which led the Abolitionists down the hard road to Juneteenth can still be present with us as we face our own seemingly immovable objects. The same unstoppable force of the Word of God endures as well. The biblical truth of the shared dignity of man and the Christian passion to let His kingdom come led these heroes to oppose and defeat one of the most entrenched evils in history.

That same power and those same principles are with us even now. They answered the call of their day; will we in ours?

 

Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973

Image: Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900, Texas, Google Images


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