A much overlooked holiday was observed in African American communities around the nation this week. Juneteenth is a celebration of the day the last slaves in Texas were told they were free. It was June 19th, 1865 and more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Two years. These men, women, and children had been free on paper and it did not touch the reality of their lives.
Moving forward in time 100 years to 1965 would show a nation of “free” black people whose lives over the past century were constricted, hemmed in by colored water fountains, restrooms, bus seating, redlining, segregated schools and more than 500 lynchings in the state of Mississippi alone. That year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched from Selma to Montgomery. That year, the Voting Rights Act was passed.
Let’s bring it 50 years further and observe 2015 where the nation was divided over the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and other people of color. A USA Today article lists 30 names of unarmed African Americans killed by police in the one year following Michael Brown’s death. (According to an article from The Washington Post, that number may be much higher.)
On Friday of last week, just before many communities were to celebrate the anniversary of their freedom, a jury handed down an aquittal in the case of the officer who fired 7 shots into the car where Philando Castile had moments before been enjoying a day with two loved ones, his girlfriend and her young daughter. By all accounts, Mr. Castile was a model citizen who served his community well. He was a legal gun owner, and he disclosed his possession of that gun to the police when they approached the car. The officer involved claims he feared that Mr. Castile was reaching for his weapon, but there is no evidence to support his fear.
I do not doubt that the officer in question was afraid. I do not doubt that he immediately regretted his decision to open fire, it is all over the video evidence. I do not doubt that this moment will haunt him for the rest of his life. But it was his fear that killed Philando Castile. Fear that seemingly had no basis other than the color of Mr. Castile’s skin.
I sit at my computer as a white woman who has been let off with a warning every time I’ve been pulled over in my life, pondering the death of a man with a broken tail light.
At the end of this week following Juneteenth 2017 I can’t help thinking that we are still waiting for the news to be broadcast far enough that black people are free, that we are all created equal, and that it is up to every one of us to make those written statements a reality.