Juneteenth observed with celebration and activism

Matthew Brown | 6/21/2018, 12:56 p.m.
Celebrations of freedom rang across the country Tuesday, June 19, in recognition of Juneteenth, the most prominent Emancipation Day holiday ...

Celebrations of freedom rang across the country Tuesday, June 19, in recognition of Juneteenth, the most prominent Emancipation Day holiday in the United States. Juneteenth, the date commemorating when Black slaves in Galveston, Texas were liberated by the Union Army and marking the official end of slavery in the United States, was observed in every borough of the city both with revelry and activism.

Festivities had begun even before Tuesday’s event, with the Juneteenth Committee of Masjid Malcolm Shabazz and The Martin Luther King Jr. Center New York Support Group co-hosting the group’s 25th annual Juneteenth and 33rd annual KingFest Celebration Parade Saturday, June 16, in Harlem. The parade began on 116th Street between Lenox and Fifth avenues, proceeded along Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and then finished at the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz Mosque.

Activist groups engaged with the day’s spirit of emancipation by challenging modern issues of bondage and internment. The grassroots organization Citizen Action of New York coordinated a protest in Foley Square calling for criminal justice reform in New York State. The protest centered on the state’s bail system, which experts and public defenders argue often incentivizes judges to set unaffordable bail for defendants, a penalty that disproportionately harms the poor and minorities. The activists called out the “guilty until proven innocent” nature of the policies and demanded a “complete overhaul of bail, discovery and speedy trial laws,” in New York State. Numerous groups, including the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Bronx Freedom Fund and Justice Leadership USA, were also in attendance.

Elsewhere, Juneteenth was commemorated with music and discourse. Hosted in the Riverside Church, the fourth annual Juneteenth Celebration in the city was a blend of social advocacy and song. The celebration called on attendees to recognize not only the 153rd anniversary of American slavery’s end but also the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The theme of the night was “The Fierce Urgency for Justice Now,” with organizers encouraging those present to help ensure justice “for all God’s children.” After special remarks by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the celebration featured musical performances by Cyrus Chestnut, Wycliffe Gordon and others. Actors and activists Harry and Gina Belafonte, change advocate Dr. Gail Christopher, community organizer Cristina Jiménez and youth leaders from the #NeverAgain anti-gun violence movement were all recognized as “Spirit Alive” honorees.

Others used Juneteenth as a moment to reflect spiritually and emotionally on the community and legacies built since emancipation. An event entitled “Celebrating Our Many Accomplishments” was hosted at the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Center Tuesday. The gathering featured song, poetry and narration from community members. A moment of silence was observed in addition to renditions of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” The Rev. Richard Hayes delivered a sermon entitled “We Are Survivors,” about the resilience of the Black American spirit. The event was closed with a reading of Langston Hughes’ “My People.”

Festivities continued into the week Tuesday’s holiday as well. The Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn sponsored a series of events for its “Unapologetically Black Week,” which featured discussions at the center on commemorating and generating Black traditions for June 19, with a conversation led by Antonio Johnson focusing on intergenerational trauma and dialogue among Black men held the next day. Friday, June 22, the center will be hosting a “Summer Friday Day Party” from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and a gallery exhibition and curated tour of the titled “#ForTheCulture: Legacies of Visual Unrest” this Saturday.