Why Juneteenth will take on greater meaning this year

Racial injustice, police brutality, protests will raise profile of the day
The Atlanta Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening during a struggle in the drive-thru line is seen on Monday, June 15, 2020, in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening during a struggle in the drive-thru line is seen on Monday, June 15, 2020, in Atlanta.

Last year, Columbus graphic artist and teacher Davian Chester created an illustration about Juneteenth that went viral.

The technology company Google often posts doodles that celebrate important dates and peoplebut Chester noticed there was no illustration to note the holiday marking the end of slavery.

So Chester made his own version of a daily doodle, featuring two brown hands breaking shackles that spelled out Google.

Davian Chester’s 2019 Juneteenth illustration. 

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This year, Chester plans to create another Juneteenth illustration.

This one, though, will also reflect his “frustration, anger and heartbreak” at the recent deaths of African Americans involving police and white vigilantes.

George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Ahmaud Arbery in the Brunswick area.

Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.

“It will be my way of saying that we’re not completely free,” said the 27-year-old Chester, who learned about Juneteenth from an episode of the ABC television show “Black-ish.”

Graphic artist Davian Chester of Columbus last year honored Juneteenth with an illustration that went viral. 

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For many African Americans like Chester, this year’s Juneteenth will resonate even more as protests against racial injustice and police brutality continue across the nation. In addition to the usual family gatherings and commemorations, there are also plans for protests, marches and reflection. And for others, it will be a time of learning and understanding as some of them learn the history of Juneteenth and weigh its impact for the first time this year.

Juneteenth dates back to June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that enslaved people were free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

“Everything that’s happened is like a slap in the face for us,” said Chester. “I feel like more of us will learn about the significance and meaning of Juneteenth. I want it to be as big as the Fourth of July.”

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Indeed, calls to make Juneteenth a national holiday have increased.

There are at least 170 petitions on Change.org to make it a federal holiday, including one from a 93-year-old Texas woman that, so far, has nearly 247,000 supporters.

“While its commemoration waned over time, its history was not completely lost,” said Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, an author, curator, historian and CEO of Preserve Black Atlanta. “There is a correlation between the cultural recognition of Juneteenth and heightened racial unrest. We see examples of this throughout the modern civil rights movement, the rise of the Black Panther Party, and the black consciousness movement of the 1990s. What we are witnessing with Black Lives Matter protests is an intense interest in the remembrance of this holiday again.”

Sharon Ann Smith dances to the music at the Home Depot Backyard at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium at the end of the Juneteenth Atlanta Black History Parade in Atlanta on June 15, 2019.

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The Atlanta Hawks, for instance, recently announced the franchise will make Juneteenth a paid company holiday for employees, and a number of other companies — including Twitter, Google, Nike and Target — have followed suit.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he will propose making June 19 a state holiday.

In 2011, Georgia recognized Juneteenth with passage of a bill sponsored by Democrats Lester Jackson of Savannah, Atlanta’s Donzella James and Valencia Seay from Riverdale that celebrates the holiday.

The day will likely be filled with protests and more attention focused on ending systemic racism.

The OneRace Movement, a Christian-based initiative that focuses on racial reconciliation, has organized a "March on Atlanta" for a day of prayer, worship and a march through downtown and back to Centennial Olympic Park.

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The United Methodist Church will use Juneteenth to launch "Dismantling Racism: Pressing on to Freedom," an effort to encourage members and others to take a stand against racism and work toward racial justice.

Members of the United Methodist Council of Bishops will discuss the initiative during a broadcast at noon Friday on UMC.org/EndRacism and Facebook.

Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, an author, curator, historian and CEO of Preserve Black Atlanta, says of Juneteenth: “What we are witnessing with Black Lives Matter protests is an intense interest in the remembrance of this holiday again.” 

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The UMC has launched a national advertising campaign on social media and news websites across the U.S., as well as digital billboards in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Houston and Louisville.

“Maybe there’s going to be a change from this point forward,” said Carl Suddler, an assistant professor of history at Emory University and author of “Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York.” “I think there’s something to be said about what the protests have done and what organizations have done to raise awareness for a lot of people about Juneteenth. This level of awareness and level of awakening that’s happening is great to see.”

Josh Clemons, co-executive director of the OneRace Movement, said growing up in Tulsa, his family celebrated Juneteenth more so than July Fourth.

“One hundred and fifty-five years later, we’re still calling for justice and liberation for black people,” he said.

This year, he expects it will resonate and raise awareness among both blacks and whites.

“We’re fighting for our liberty and fighting for our freedom in every sense,” he said. “We’re going to talk about this. We’re going to open the bag.”

John Jones, who was born in Texas and now lives in Georgia, says Juneteenth will have special meaning this year because of the protests that are focusing on ending racism and police brutality. 

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Although he grew up in Nacogdoches, Texas, John Jones, 64, of College Park didn’t know much about Juneteenth.

A few years ago, though, Jones, a facilities manager for Southwest Airlines, began planning family vacations back to Texas to join in the local celebrations.

Concern about COVID-19 will keep him in Georgia this year, although “it means even more today. Juneteenth is now so emotional.”

While he doesn’t plan to join protests that day, “I understand the anger of folks. I don’t condone the burning of buildings, but people have got to understand it’s a different generation. They’re angry. They’re fed up and emotions are running high.”

Rennie Curran of Chamblee will participate in the “March on Atlanta.”

The former NFL player, now a motivational speaker and author, draws on his family ties to Liberia. His parents moved to the United States from the West African nation, which was established on land acquired for former slaves.

Curran, 31, thinks this year more people will hear about Juneteenth.

“This is something to not only celebrate, but we need to keep the movement going and to keep the progress going,” said Curran, who has joined other marches in Atlanta.

Khadijah Diggs, an Ellenwood mother of 10, will make sure her children understand the significance and history of Juneteenth. HANDOUT

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He has talked to his young daughter about Juneteenth, which is something many schools don’t teach.

“It’s really part of empowering her to move forward in her life,” he said.

Marcus Arbery (right), father of Ahmaud Arbery, and Gary Arbery embraced as they are led away from the Glynn County Courthouse following a break from the proceedings in Brunswick Thursday, June 4, 2020. A judge found probable cause against three suspects in Ahmaud Arbery’s death.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Curran said he has been stopped by police. He thinks about Arbery and realizes as someone who jogs alone all the time, it could happen to him.

“It definitely takes a toll on you mentally, physically and emotionally,” he said. “These experiences happen and there’s always a very real possibility of it happening to you. You feel like you’re walking every day with 400 pounds on your back.”

Khadijah Diggs, an Ellenwood mother of 10, learned about Juneteenth from her father, who took part in the civil rights movement in North Carolina in the 1960s.

She does not typically observe the date, but intends to share the significance of the date with her children.

“It’s more of an awareness that we have to be vigilant about how we’re treated,” she said. “I think Juneteenth will be more of a day of awareness of who we are, where we’ve been and the fact we can’t sleep on this moment.”

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