This weekend, from Brooklyn to Buffalo, people of African descent will host a myriad of festivals “commemorating” the freeing of the last enslaved Africans in America. But as we celebrate, I must turn our attention to the legislative imprisonment and government-backed injustice that continues to plague Black America. On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, General Gordon Granger declared General Order No. 3 which says:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former enslavers and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

We have yet to see this order rightfully enacted as we are still battling for basic human rights in this country. We are under siege.

For 155 years, freedom has been our collective mission. In ways we’ve piecemealed our liberation with celebrations, spiritual revivals, art and through accolades. And certainly, in this time the African spirit that lives and breathes within us all has worked tirelessly to nurture this country to a level of greatness that from which we have yet to reap full benefit, while others refuse to acknowledge our foundational and sustaining contributions. We now fight to create spaces and legislation where we can realize our own destiny and own our liberation as we’ve learned that asking for equality doesn’t work, understanding that the debt owed will never allow us to be equal in the present state of America.

Over the decades, we and our ancestors have activated our collective ingenuity and indomitable spirit to achieve uber excellence to level the playing field, but always with sacrifices. For two centuries we have become heads of state, captains of industry, and leaders of movements. But we’ve also suffered mental trauma that carries forth and continues to impact our current generations. We face rising suicide rates, chronic diseases, and racism is still killing us in the form of domestic terrorism, gun violence, infant and maternal morbidity, and a lack of quality, affordable and safe housing, health care, jobs and education.

In 1870, five years after emancipation, we came to understand that voting rights + equal rights = human rights. The elected and business leaders of the time who were in the struggle for political representation and political power, helped to ratify the 15th Amendment which established that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Similar to the election of President Barack Obama in 2012, we celebrated the victory, congratulated ourselves for the hard-fought win for recognition, representation and equality and forgot the enemy.

In those confederate states where Blacks outnumber whites, the dog whistle of “state’s rights” sounded and known domestic terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia used any and every violent tactic to suppress the Black vote. Those bent on advancing their racist ideology began the process of political gerrymandering by packing and cracking districts to ensure their perpetual electoral power. Their hatred of Black progress and excellence would commit us to a new reign of terror in the form of lynchings and land theft for generations. Despite the laws of 1865 and 1870, we were not free or equal. It would take Black people until 1965 to regain the right to vote and begin the journey to freedom anew.

Yesteryear could be today. In the 56th Assembly District, where I proudly represent the residents of Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, we are still under attack. A redistricting battle is raging in my district and across the nation. We are fighting to protect our right to vote, and our property is being stolen or bought for less than it’s worth.

Earlier this month, I voted for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Gov. Hochul has yet to sign it and instead has added a series of amendments that exclude school board elections. As a city, we are reexamining mayoral control vs. school board or community control of schools. Remember, “whoever controls the education of our children, controls our future.”

In Congress, we are pushing to finally put in place the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, which would restore protections for the Black Vote established by the original voting rights act. The law would prohibit states who seek to disenfranchise the Black Vote from making any changes to their state’s laws and constitution without pre-clearance from the federal government. We need this law to begin the process of holding our government accountable.

The question I ask is, why are we still fighting battles that we’ve won over a century ago? The laws our ancestors fought for have not been sufficient enough to protect Black people. The United Nations recognized this fact in 2015 when it established the International Decade for People of African Descent. The FBI and CIA both agree on the empirical data that Black People are the most hated group in America. The ACLU, NAACP, and Southern Poverty Law Center continue to fight for racial justice and to protect Black lives—reference the fight against qualified immunity. Yet, as the first architects, mothers, farmers, and creators in this country, not to mention, the world, we still fight for basic protections.

While we celebrate Juneteenth, know that we will never be free until these legislative promises move from law into general practice. Let us all take a hard look within ourselves, reflect, and acknowledge that it is our collective responsibility to hold our government accountable. It is only then that we can hold these entities responsible for reparations, at minimum in the form of quality and accessible education for our children, opportunities for employment, truly affordable housing, quality health and safety. Reparations are meant to repair the decades and decades of damage and trauma we are left to heal from and overcome. We need reparations, not just a holiday which is already being raped and commoditized by the very institutions and organizations that have and continue to benefit from this historical oppression.

If we are serious about addressing these concerns, then we must stand and demand our reparations now. The power to make change is within the people. In every victory, our people have been singularly focused on our survival because we knew it was the only way we could continue to thrive. Juneteenth is the celebration of what we’ve done but it is also a clarion call to focus on our collective salvation, guard our backs, build, and maintain our institutions while demanding that America pay its debt and make good on its promises.

Stefani Zinerman represents the 56th District (Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights) in the New York State Assembly.

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