Protesters marched over the Brooklyn Bridge, chanted “We want justice now!” near St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, stopped work at West Coast ports and paused for a moment of silence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, as Americans marked Juneteenth with new urgency Friday amid a nationwide push for racial justice.
The holiday, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, is usually celebrated with parades and festivals but became a day of protest this year in the wake of demonstrations set off by George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police.
In addition to traditional cookouts and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation — the Civil War-era order that declared all enslaved people free in Confederate territory — Americans of all backgrounds were marching, holding sit-ins or taking part in car caravan protests.
Thousands gathered at a religious rally in Atlanta. Hundreds marched from St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott case partially played out, a pivotal one that denied citizenship to African Americans but galvanized the anti-slavery movement. Protesters and revelers held signs in Dallas, danced to a marching band in Chicago and registered people to vote in Detroit.
“Now we have the attention of the world, and we are not going to let this slide,” Charity Dean, director of Detroit’s office of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity, said at an event that drew hundreds and called for an end to police brutality and racial inequality.
Events marking Juneteenth were planned in every major American city Friday, although some were being held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. At some events, including in Chicago and New York, participants packed together, though many wore masks. At others, masks were scarce.
Cranes came to a standstill as longshoremen in more than two dozen West Coast ports stopped work to mark Juneteenth. In California’s Port of Oakland, political activist and former Black Panther Party member Angela Davis thanked the workers for shutting down on “the day when we renew our commitment to the struggle for freedom.”
In Nashville, Tennessee, about two dozen Black men, most wearing suits, stood arm in arm in front of the city’s criminal courts. Behind them was a statue of Adolpho Birch, the first African American to serve as chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
“If you were uncomfortable standing out here in a suit, imagine how you would feel with a knee to your neck,” said Phillip McGee, one of the demonstrators, referring to Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, and it became effective the following Jan. 1. But it wasn’t enforced in many places until after the Civil War ended in April 1865. Word didn’t reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas.
Most states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth — a blend of the words June and 19th — as a state holiday or day of recognition, like Flag Day. But with protests over Floyd’s killing and a pandemic that’s disproportionately harmed Black communities, more Americans — especially white people — are becoming familiar with the holiday and commemorating it.
“I feel hopeful and really, really proud to see the community of whites and Blacks joining together and for white people to really understand what the significance of Juneteenth is,” said Elaine Loving, who marched with her two daughters, grandchildren and hundreds of others in Portland, Oregon’s historically Black neighborhood, where she’s lived since 1959.
Some places that didn’t already mark Juneteenth as a paid holiday moved in recent days to do so, including New York state.
The growing recognition of Juneteenth comes as protests have yielded results, including policing reforms in several places. Also gaining momentum were longstanding demands to remove symbols and names associated with slavery and oppression.
Protesters in North Carolina’s capital pulled down two statues Friday night that are part of a larger Confederate monument. Also this week, a crane toppled a Confederate monument that had stood in an Atlanta suburb since 1908 and the U.S. House removed portraits of four former speakers who served in the Confederacy.
In addition to big marches, smaller events were held. In Louisiana, community and environmental groups won a court fight to hold a Juneteenth ceremony at a site archaeologists have described as a probable cemetery for enslaved African Americans. Philadelphia residents staged impromptu celebrations after a parade and festival were canceled because of the pandemic, and St. Petersburg, Florida, unveiled of a blocklong mural that says “Black Lives Matter.”
“We know our lives matter. You don’t have to tell us that. We’re trying to tell the world that,” said Plum Howlett, a tattoo artist who painted part of the mural.
President Donald Trump issued a message for Juneteenth, which he said was “both a remembrance of a blight on our history and a celebration of our Nation’s unsurpassed ability to triumph over darkness.”
Trump had originally planned a rally Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but changed the date to Saturday amid an uproar about his appearance on a date of such significance. The city also is where white mobs attacked a prosperous black business district nearly a century ago, leaving as many as 300 people dead.
In New Orleans, where demonstrators were greeted with bowls of red beans and rice, speaker Malik Bartholomew offered a reminder.
“We celebrate Juneteenth in honor of the celebration of freedom, but guess what? We also have to celebrate the fight,” Bartholomew said.