On June 19, 1865, the Emancipation Proclamation was read in Galveston, bringing the news that enslaved individuals were free in the United States.
As joyous as this occasion was, we must remember the actual Emancipation Proclamation was declared on Jan. 1, 1863. For two and a half years, enslaved individuals deep in the Confederate states remained enslaved, despite the declaration set forth by the presidency.
Since this time, there has been an ebb and flow of Juneteenth celebrations throughout the country due to persisting economic and political factors impacting the black community. However, prior to Juneteenth and years following, the black church played a critical role in the organization and mobilization of the continued fight for equity in this country.
As we march toward Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, America is forced to grapple with contradictions between the liberation of black people in America and the systemic and structural racism that continues to hold black people captive within the same country.
In recent weeks, we have watched the unjust killing of black men and women at the hands of police officers and vigilantes, we have witnessed police called on black individuals for “living while black”—sleeping, eating, jogging, etc.—and we have observed the disparate impact of COVID-19 on black communities throughout the nation.
The church and Juneteenth
If America is going to wrestle with the meaning of this holiday in the wake of the current societal events, the church cannot go silent for two main reasons: (1) its call to bring a prophetic voice to the direction of society, and (2) its history in the work toward liberation of the black community.
Early on, Juneteenth celebrations often took place at churches and involved singing “freedom songs” or “Negro spirituals,” songs that lifted the spirits of enslaved individuals and provided hope in the midst of despair. The lyrics of songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” lean on Scripture and prophetic utterances to condemn the status quo of the present and speak life for more hopeful future.
This posture characterized the role of the black church from Silver Bluff Baptist Church in the 1700s, through the years of Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
Whether it was hiding enslaved individuals under the floorboards of sanctuary floors in South Carolina, galvanizing movements and protests from the pulpits on Sunday mornings throughout the South, or speaking truth to power to preserve black communities against the hand of the government—as did Bible Way Church in Washington, D.C.—the black church was a critical piece of the movement.
The continued role of the church in providing a place of hope for a people enduring a fight for equity, while offering celebration for progress made, remains relevant and critical in 2020.
The prophetic voice of Juneteenth
With 66 books of the Bible strategically outlining the redemptive and liberating plan for a nation, the church has precedent to act in a prophetic manner. The judges, prophets and disciples each managed to condemn and hold accountable the governmental powers of their time, while expressing a prophetic imagination about what society could look like if they repented.
With educational disparities, health inequalities, wealth gaps, overrepresentation in the justice system and disproportionate killing of black men and women by law enforcement, the church has a role in speaking and establishing a prophetic imagination for the future of this society.
The upcoming Freedom Day not only should remind us of freedom from slavery, but also should continue to push us to establish a more just society moving forward. As we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we must understand this type of liberation does not come with spectating, but with action.
Juneteenth should be more than remembering and celebrating the announcement of emancipation. It also should remember the action taken by formerly enslaved individuals leading to the occasion.
Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian, educator and civil rights leader, stated in his book Jesus and The Disinherited, “It cannot be denied that too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed—this, despite the gospel.”
As we continue to march toward Juneteenth, we must reflect on our theology and work to understand how it propels us into action to march toward justice. Our Christian platform does not preclude us from this work of justice; it positions us directly to usher justice into unjust situations and circumstances.
With 47 of 50 states recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday, the country continues talk of making it a national holiday. It is vital that included in our discourse is the full scope of what this Freedom Day represents and reminds us of as an entire society—past, present and future.
We definitely should make space to remember and celebrate the freedom of many, while remembering and lamenting the current injustices that continue to plague black communities.
Juneteenth also should challenge us to determine how we will move forward in our prophetic callings to affect change in a society that must come to grips with its problematic relationship—past and present—with an entire community.
If we expect America to grapple with the apparent contradiction represented by the celebration of Juneteenth in the midst of racial injustice in this country, the church needs to be the prophet in the face of the king, ready to speak truth to power.
Rev. Ryan M. Sutton, Ph.D. is the children, youth and young adult minister of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Austin. His doctoral degree is in counseling psychology from Howard University, where he specialized in mental health and trauma within youth in communities of color. The views expressed are those of the author.