Juneteenth and Filibuster Fuel Fight for Democracy That Works for Everyone

Some U.S. lawmakers are all too willing to sign off on another holiday, especially if they can use it as cover while actively working to suppress voting rights, block living wages and reparations, fight against healthcare, and more.

Common Dreams
By Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II
June 23, 2021

Last week, an overwhelming majority of Congress voted to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Just days later, many of the same politicians voted to block the For the People Act and continue to uphold the filibuster and resist other legislative actions to protect our democracy, lift up poor rural and urban areas, raise wages, and expand social programs for the poor. They are happy to “honor” freedom on paper, while continuing to shackle the possibility of a democracy that works for all people, especially people of color and the poor. When we see such transparent political cynicism on display, we must call it out.

That is why earlier today leaders with the West Virginia and Kentucky Poor People’s Campaigns led a Moral March on Manchin and McConnell to call on our political leaders to save our impoverished democracy by expanding voting rights, raising wages, and reconstructing society. And it why this past weekend, we commemorated, not celebrated, Juneteenth. Yes, its recognition as a national holiday punctuates the ongoing reckoning this nation must have with its bloody past. But in our faith traditions, a day like Juneteenth is not a holiday to celebrate; it is a holy day when we consecrate the struggles of our ancestors and all oppressed people by recommitting ourselves to the principles of justice, freedom, and full citizenship for all.

The last time Congress created a national holiday was four decades ago when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983. But just like MLK Day, there is a real danger that Juneteenth will simply become a national artifact, a vessel for empty gestures and promises by politicians who show little concern for the actual lives of Black people, people of color, and the poor. Indeed, we should not forget that MLK Day was created during the Reagan years and used by his administration to defang the radical King while they perfected the formula for trickle-down economics.

Now, Republicans, and some Democrats, are all too willing to sign off on another holiday, especially if they can use it as cover while actively working to suppress voting rights, block living wages and reparations, fight against healthcare, and more. For these leaders, perhaps Juneteenth really is a holiday, when they can take a day off work and celebrate freedom as if it’s a settled matter, and not an unfinished project. This is particularly problematic at a time when, according to voter suppression expert Ari Berman, the current assault on voting rights by the Republican party and their enablers across the aisle like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the worst attack on democracy since the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

We should take note when history circles back like this, especially since the story of Juneteenth too often ends with the emancipation of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas in 1865. But the actual history reminds us that enslaved people and abolitionists were not fighting for formal freedom alone, but for full citizenship, including the right to the fruits of their own labor. That’s why immediately following emancipation they got to work transforming the South and the nation, and why they were joined by poor whites who saw that they had shared political aspirations and economic interests.

The first Reconstruction, roughly between 1865 and 1877, was the biggest democratic breakthrough in American history. Within four years of the Civil War, almost every Southern legislature was controlled by either a predominantly black alliance or a strong interracial coalition. These fusion state governments hammered out new constitutions from a deeply moral perspective, enshrining education and labor rights that stand to this day. They knew then, both Black and white, that work without living wages is just another form of slavery. They also knew that freedom depended on a vibrant democracy; they expanded access to the ballot and reformed criminal justice systems.

These hopeful years were a glimpse into what real democracy could look like on American soil. But Reconstruction also faced enormous opposition from the start. Many former Confederates saw Black citizenship and interracial working-class alliances  as inherently illegitimate. They worked hard to sabotage the progress being made and take back power through deep-seated political resistance and a widespread campaign of violence and terror. In place of Reconstruction, they constructed the system of Jim Crow.

This was the immediate legacy following emancipation: one dream delivered, and another deferred. And it is why, more than 150 years later, Juneteenth should not only be a sacred day for Black people, but for every person in this country, and especially poor and low-income people. That long-ago day in the far reaches of Texas not only marked the end of the institution of slavery and the deadly lie that kept 250,000 people in bondage for two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was also the start of a brief and profound experiment in democracy that empowered millions and enriched the entire country.

It is this extraordinary history that helped inspire Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal, along with dozens of other congresspeople, to recently introduce a new resolution: “Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low-Wages from the Bottom Up,” taking inspiration from Reconstruction and the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. We are proud to stand with them in supporting this resolution, which is informed by the agenda of the Poor People’s Campaign (which we co-chair).

This history is also why we did not celebrate Juneteenth, the “national holiday,” this year. Instead, we honored the continuing struggle that Juneteenth represents by reconsecrating ourselves to the fight for a democracy where every person has the right to live and be fully free. We carried that spirit forward this Monday at a national assembly of poor people and low-wage workers, when we announced 365 days of fighting forward to help realize a Third Reconstruction, and a democracy that works for everyone.

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Photo by Steve Pavey / Hope in Focus

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. She is the author of “Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor” (2017).

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is national president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. His books include: “The Third Reconstruction: How A Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear” (2016), “Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing” (2018) and “We Are Called to Be a Movement” (2020). Follow him on Twitter: @RevDrBarber