For a second year, we will enjoy a federal holiday to mark Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.
Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) commemorates the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people there were freed. The troops’ arrival came two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had declared that, as of January 1, 1863, all “persons held as slaves” in the rebel states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
When I look at our nation today, 157 years later, I wonder – is this what generations of slaves longed for? All those downtrodden people who paved narrow places straight; who created something out of a faith that wasn’t their own; who believed in a path towards hope, even when they were hopeless. All those oppressed souls who died with a dream deferred – is this what they hoped for? Is this what true emancipation looks like?
I wonder because there is an important difference between being freed and having freedom.
In his seminal work Escape From Freedom, published in 1941, the social psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm distinguished between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. A Jew who had fled to the US from Nazi Germany, Fromm defined ‘freedom from’ as emancipation from something negative. This form of freedom, Fromm warned, can be a destructive force unless it goes hand in hand with ‘freedom to’ – the freedom to take positive steps to control one’s own destiny. In other words, being freed from slavery, while rightly the cause of great celebration, is only half the battle.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he talked about the Emancipation Proclamation and offered a bleak assessment of what he saw as its unfulfilled promise. “One hundred years later,” he said, “the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”
Almost six decades on, Black and Brown Americans are still the victims of systemic racism, still on average the poorest citizens in one of the richest nations on earth, and still at risk of being excluded from the very cornerstone of society: full and equal participation in our democracy. I doubt this is how the newly emancipated slaves imagined their descendants’ future.
Yet, we have at our disposal the template for creating a genuinely equal nation. I believe that complete freedom, when we acquire it, will be the realization of the famous Preamble to the Declaration of Independence and its “self-evident” truth that, “all men are created equal.” Every American will be free to pursue happiness, whether they are poor, rich, or middle class; whether they are White, Brown, or polka-dotted; whether they are straight, lesbian, or pan-sexual; whether they are Christian, Buddhist, or Jedi.
Our country’s wisest laws are also its most inclusive, precisely because they were inspired by a people who understood bondage but still believed in freedom, liberty, and justice for all. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was designed to make the uncivilized civil towards those once deemed soulless, but it also protects the civil and human rights of anyone seen as being other. The Voting Rights Acts of 1965 was created to ensure that, through a just democratic process, every citizen’s voice could be heard. The potential for equality enshrined in the legislation for which marginalized citizens fought so hard benefits the whole community in the broadest possible sense. It is our gift to America.
Although we should rejoice in the gains we have won, we must also recognize that a great deal of effort is still required if we are to complete our collective ‘freedom from’ with the missing piece of the puzzle – ‘freedom to.’
How will we know when we have succeeded?
Well, when ‘freedom to’ comes, women will be free to make their own choices, wherever in this great union they happen to live. Their bodies will not be a matter of governmental rhetoric, nor of religious propaganda.
When ‘freedom to’ comes, we will all be free to vote in fair and just elections. No citizen’s voting rights will be threatened by gerrymandering, intimation, or suppression tactics.
When ‘freedom to’ comes, everyone will be free to love and marry whomever they please, because love will simply be love.
When ‘freedom to’ comes, each of us will be free to worship in any way we chose – or not worship at all – without facing vile attacks. Anti-Muslim hate speech and antisemitism will no longer exist. No-one will be shouting “Jews will not replace us.”
When ‘freedom to’ comes, parents will be free to send their children to school without worrying that they might be shot, because the Second Amendment will not count for more than students’ lives.
When ‘freedom to’ comes, every child will be free to realize their ambitions. Poverty will not be a barrier to achievement, and a poor White child in a rural area will matter just as much as a poor Black child in an urban area.
Together, we can complete the task begun on the very first Juneteenth, but dreaming won’t be enough. We need to awaken from our current nightmare and take action.
So, on this year’s Juneteenth holiday, I will be praying that every American who longs for freedom, whether their ancestors were enslaved or not, finds the strength to continue to agitate and to legislate. May we “lift every voice and sing,” but also lift our feet – “as though they are praying,” as Rabbi Heschel once said – to get us to polling places and voting centers.
So, let’s celebrate the momentous occasion that is Juneteenth with pride and honor, with dignity and purpose, with hope and perseverance. And then let’s do the work to get us from ‘freedom from’ to ‘freedom to’ and finally emancipate all Americans from injustice and inequality.
Keith Magee is a public theologian, political adviser and social justice scholar. He is Visiting Professor in Cultural Justice at University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, where he leads Black Britain and Beyond, a social platform and think tank, and is also a Fellow in Politics and Justice its Centre on US Politics. He isChair and Professor of Practice of Social Justice at Newcastle University (United Kingdom). He is the author of “Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion and Politics.”