Is Georgia living up to the Juneteenth promise of freedom?

A special panel discusses the holiday on ‘Politically Georgia’

The Juneteenth federal holiday made headlines when President Joe Biden signed it into law in 2021.

Juneteenth marks how the last enslaved Black people in Texas learned about their freedom in 1865, two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Like Texas, Georgia has its own complicated history with slavery and delivering on the American promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

The path to freedom in Georgia

Some historians say the first enslaved people arrived in what would become Georgia under a Spanish settlement in 1526. Fast-forward to the 1700s, when Georgia colony founder James Oglethorpe tried to prohibit Black slavery as a matter of public policy. That decision was short-lived.

By the time of the Civil War in the 1860s, there were more than 460,000 enslaved Africans living in Georgia, accounting for 44% of its population.

Many slaves joined the Union or followed Union soldiers to freedom as they passed through their towns. Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman led troops from Atlanta to Savannah in 1864 in what is now called “Sherman’s March to the Sea.” Many enslaved Black people followed, hoping to find freedom, though they were unwelcomed.

After the Civil War, many enslaved people were left to pick up their lives in the decades that followed. Wallace Quarterman of St. Simons Island was one of those newly freed people. The Library of Congress recorded his retelling of the day he was told he was free in a series called ”Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People.”

Quarterman, like many freed slaves, was offered $40 in wages to stay on his plantation as a sharecropper but refused the money.

“If I take this $40, that means I’m still stuck here,” preservationist Ann Hill Bond said, explaining Quaterman’s reasoning.

“But if I leave without your $40, that means generations after me will be able to be free and not stuck to this land,” Bond said, reacting to the clip of Quarterman with hosts of “Politically Georgia.”

Bond serves as the community engagement editor of Capitol B, a Black-focused publication.

She said newly freed Black Americans and the generations following them faced numerous threats to their lives and livelihoods in the decades following slavery, which we now call Reconstruction.

Georgia ranked second in lynchings during Reconstruction, Bond said, and she drew a comparison to its current ranking in incarcerations.

“The through lines of the legacy of terror that stemmed from chattel slavery as we’re celebrating Juneteenth should be, you know, pushed to the forefront,” she said.

Ann Hill Bond is the community engagement editor of Capitol B, a Black-focused publication. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Christina Matacotta

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Credit: Christina Matacotta

After nearly 75 years of Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement began springing up in the South and across the nation. In Georgia, leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Corretta Scott King, John Lewis and Hosea Williams fought to preserve and protect basic civil and voting rights for Black Americans.

“And so when I think of Juneteenth, I think of that,” Bond said of the holiday. “I think of the fact that even in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and even in the 2000s, we’re still having a tug of war with our freedom.”

The power of the Black electorate

A large part of that freedom is embracing the ballot box. Black voters, and the rest of the country, will have to choose between the candidates of the two major parties, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, again in 2024.

Trump’s claims of increased appeal to Black voters appeared to be consistent with the most recent polls from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times, which suggest that 20% of Black voters would vote for Trump in the general election.

But in Georgia’s March 12 presidential primary, only 5% of Black voters cast a ballot in the Republican primary.

The power of the Black electorate cannot be understated as Biden just narrowly won the Peach State by about 12,000 votes in 2020.

Freelance journalist and filmmaker King Williams said Black people want to see the Biden administration become as aggressive in advancing its agenda as Republicans are in pushing their issues.

Biden earlier this month addressed a predominantly Black audience at a Juneteenth concert on the White House lawn. He said he was “proud to have made Juneteenth a federal holiday.”

King Williams, a native of Atlanta, is a writer and filmmaker.

Credit: Kurnia Kosasi

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Credit: Kurnia Kosasi

“But it wasn’t just a symbolic gesture,” the president said. “It was a statement of fact. It was about a statement of faith. It was testimony of a testament to the resilience of generations of Black Americans who kept their eyes set on the nation’s North Star.”

Williams says the Biden administration cannot take the Black electorate for granted.

“I think for a lot of Black Americans, considering we’re around 90, 95% of us still vote for the Democratic Party, we’re expecting the party to be very aggressive in our issues on that same level, and it just hasn’t come up yet,” Williams added.

Williams is an Atlanta native who covers issues of inequality in his newsletter. He recently wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how the Biden administration can help with the city’s aging infrastructure following days of water outages.

Still, as he reflects on the Juneteenth promise of freedom, he sees his hometown as a beacon for Black America.

“I do think (Atlanta) has both solutions and opportunities, and as somebody who’s been in many places around the country and lived in other parts across the country that has a larger percentage of Black people, they don’t have necessarily the same level of access, education, opportunity Atlanta does,” Williams said.

“And without Atlanta, I do think America is in a bit of a pickle in terms of a place where Black people can come in and have opportunities in all aspects of life,” he said. “I think if Atlanta goes down, so does Black America.”

Promise of equality

The promise of Juneteenth extends to generations past and present and to the next generation of Black people.

Tiffany Williams Roberts, director of the public policy unit at the Southern Center for Human Rights, talked on “Politically Georgia” about the importance of Black economics. Roberts highlighted the racial wealth gap in Atlanta, which is one of the worst in the country.

“Depriving Black communities of wealth has been a primary tactic since enslaved Africans were emancipated,” Roberts said.

“So, when we’re talking about Juneteenth, it’s really impossible to talk about the so-called promise of America without talking about the call for reparations,” she said.

Tiffany Williams Roberts is the director of the public policy unit at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Credit: Special

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Credit: Special

According to the 2023 State of Black Georgia Report from Georgia’s Urban League, the median wealth of Blacks will fall to zero by 2053 if no action is taken.

The same report also points out that about 50% of the inmates admitted in the Georgia Department of Corrections in 2021 were Black, yet Black Georgians make up 32% of the state’s population.

“That’s by design,” Roberts said. “We came from enslavement to the false promises of Reconstruction, Black codes, race, shame, police brutality. These are trends that are all remnants of chattel slavery.“

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