Sunday, April 20, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Juneteenth: Remembering the promise of citizenship

Dozens of supporters look on as President Lyndon Johnson signs the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Courtesy photo

Join in

What: Juneteenth will be celebrated with food, entertainment and educational exhibits to remember when Union soldiers enforced the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas on June 19, 1865

When: 1-5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Veterans’ Memorial Center, 203 E. 14th St., Davis

By Desmond Jolly

History is a battlefield and memory is, as academics say, contested space.

Humans exhibit a certain plasticity that tempts those in positions of authority to want to mold their subjects in accordance with their own interests. They could be variously parents, mentors, fraternal organizations, religious orders, the military and various stripes of governments.

We got a reminder of this on June 4 — the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest, as the Chinese government engaged in massive and effective censorship of images of and references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when troops with assault weapons and tanks killed scores of unarmed citizens trying to block the military’s advance into the heart of Beijing. Even a parody using Photoshopped rubber ducks as references to the tanks was blocked.

Interestingly, that very day, it was revealed that President Obama’s government is itself engaged in massive global interceptions of electronic communications, ostensibly to catch ”those that would do us harm.” But it requires little imagination to suppose that potential targets could include dissidents of various sorts, perhaps even entirely innocent people.

So Presidents Obama and Xi Ping, who met that very day, have much more in common than meets the eye — a keen interest in what their subjects are thinking and to whom they are communicating. In either case, it conduces toward conformity in thought — not a strong foundation for democratic society. In the Chinese case, clearly, the object is to suppress the memory of Tiananmen.

A recent article on Poland’s transformation from the Communist era discusses the loss of memory not only of the material and political challenges of that era, but of the actors whose struggle ended it — the students, the labor movement and others. As one Polish historian put it, “Some people think we have to do something right now because there is a fight about our memory, our remembrance. In the politics of memory, there are lots of battlefields.”

People often voluntarily relinquish memories, particularly ones that make them uncomfortable. Gunnar Myrdal labeled this syndrome “opportunistic ignorance.” A young Pole demonstrates this — “Everything is changing for the better now, so we have to broaden our horizons for the future, for the present. … We can’t cry about all that was in the past.” However, as William Faulkner wrote in “Requiem for a Nun,” “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

This seems particularly appropriate for African-Americans who, as they prepare for Juneteenth celebrations, face challenges remarkably like those of 150 years ago — mainly, will their citizenship rights be abridged or abrogated? Those rights are now being contested in the U.S. Supreme Court and locally, by the Davis Police Department, which challenged the right of a local citizen to stand on his own lawn.

Juneteenth remembers when African-American captives in Texas came under the aegis of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. His proclamation took effect Jan. 1, 1863, but it could not be enforced until federal troops liberated states under Confederate control. Texas was not liberated until June 18, 1865, when the troops reached Galveston.

On June 19, Gen. Gordon Granger issued a proclamation outlawing legal slavery — “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that of employer and hired labor.”

Granger qualified his proclamation of freedom by advising former captive laborers to “remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

This ominous qualification foreshadowed the sharecropper, convict labor system and other subversions of a free labor system.

As to their citizenship rights, the “black codes” enacted by former Confederate states systematically stripped African-Americans of virtually every civil right, particularly the right to vote and right to legal justice. And these deprivations were enforced by extra-legal violence.

It was only in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, that African-Americans regained the right to vote.
But Juneteenth celebrations commenced shortly after Galveston — reportedly Wilmar, Ark., has observed the day with a dinner for more than 100 years.

Locally, Davis will celebrate Juneteenth from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Veterans’ Memorial Center, 203 E. 14th St.

Ominously, former Confederate states have challenged key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker views as “the most effective law of its kind in the history of the United States. A century after the Civil War, the act, in abolishing many forms of discrimination employed by Southern states, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, finally turned the legal right for African-Americans in those states into an actual right to vote.”

The Supreme Court will rule momentarily.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration advocated that African-American soldiers stationed in military posts be allowed to vote in national elections, the Confederate states undermined it. As Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi succinctly put it; “Those boys are fighting to maintain white supremacy.”

It will be instructive to see whether the present Supreme Court agrees with him. So this year, Juneteenth carries with it a hint of the Ides of March.

— Desmond Jolly is a longtime Davis resident and an emeritus agricultural economist at UC Davis. he has been a recipient of the city of Davis’ Thong H. Huynh Human Relations Award.

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