"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."
—U.S. Major General Gordon Granger, June 19, 1865
These words, spoken exactly 156 years ago today, were a cause for celebration for 250,000 enslaved people in Texas. Although President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect over two years earlier, the news took many months to reach certain areas of the country as the Civil War raged on. In the meantime, many slaveowners had fled to outlying areas such as Texas, where they believed they could continue the practice outside the reach of the Union army.
The 13th amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery nationwide, was ultimately ratified later that year. But it would be, of course, just one step in the long walk toward justice for Black and Brown people in this country. While the celebration of Juneteenth's anniversary began the very following year, it gained wider recognition outside the South during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. In 1968, for example, Coretta Scott King helped to weave it into the activities of the Poor People's March just two months following the assassination of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr.
Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an order making Juneteenth an official New York State holiday. And just this week, Congress passed legislation making it a federal holiday — the first new federal holiday, in fact, since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established four decades ago. This is an important, symbolic step, but our nation has more work to do in the fight for racial equality and justice. In particular, I urge our congressional leaders to finally pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would bring about more accountability in policing and an end to racial and religious profiling.
When Coretta Scott King served as Wells College's 1980 Commencement speaker, she urged our graduates to "become a voice for uplifting your disadvantaged and downtrodden brothers and sisters," and reminded students that they are "our hope for a better tomorrow, a better America, a better world." I encourage you to take a moment today to reflect upon how you can bring about a positive change in the world — and help all those around you to act humanely in the cultivation of a meaningful life.