Juneteenth Day is a celebration that takes place across our nation in many African American communities commemorating the end of slavery. The observance dates back to June 19, 1865. This was 2½ years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which legally put an end to slavery. June 19, 2015, marks 150 years of the observance of Juneteenth Day.

The one name that is synonymous with Juneteenth in my mind is Fredrick Douglass. A man born into slavery but who never thought of himself as a slave. He would fight fiercely for his freedom and the freedom of others, eventually gaining that freedom and rising to serve as an advisor to President Lincoln. Douglass would write: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”

Before planting crops, the soil has to be made ready. Rocks have to be removed before the ground can be tilled. The Emancipation Proclamation removed the first major rock – the rock of slavery – in 1863.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended Jim Crow segregation was the lifting of the second major rock.

The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was lifted another rock, putting an end to discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, lifted another huge rock.

Yet, despite all that lifting, we still face the challenge of the rock we call racism, which manifests itself in the deadly behavior exhibited by some white police officers toward African American males. For example, in a Washington Post study published May 30 that looked at the 385 people killed by police so far this year in the United States, while 171 of them were white and 100 were black, “overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred,” the Post report said.

These shootings have given rise to “The Black Lives Matter” movement. A multi-racial coalition has risen to demand a new approach to policing in the African American communities and to say that indeed “Black Lives Matter.” Freedom still eludes us as long as one segment of our population’s freedom is in jeopardy.

Fredrick Douglass understood how precious freedom was and how necessary it was to fight for that freedom.

Our faith teaches us that God is a lover of freedom. I don’t think it was accidental that the slaves latched on to the story of Moses and the Exodus. God has an ear, and I would argue a keen and particular ear to the cries of those who long to be free.

Juneteenth is not just a commemoration of an event that happened 150 years ago. It is a call to pay attention to those places where people are still not free and to join in this groundswell of a movement to make the freedom that the forefathers envisioned real for every person and for every group that still lives with and feels the sting of discrimination.

“God said, I’ve taken a good long look at the affliction of my people in Egypt. I’ve heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain. And now I have come down to help them. Pry them loose from the grip of Egypt, get them out of that country and bring them to a good land with wide-open spaces, a land lush with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8 The Message).

Prying requires some pushing and pulling, some struggle and God is leading in that. A good land filled with wide-open spaces where black males can walk their streets without fear of being stopped by the police in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Ferguson, Houston, Cleveland and in other cities in this land.

That would be a good thing. That would be a good day.

Ken Wheeler
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee, where he is now the director of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.

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