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Juneteenth takes on new meaning amid nationwide protests for racial justice

People taking part in a Juneteenth march fill 23rd Avenue in Seattle Friday.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Protesters marched over the Brooklyn Bridge, chanted “We want justice now!” near St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, prayed in Atlanta and paused for a moment of silence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, as Americans marked Juneteenth with new urgency Friday amid a nationwide push for racial justice.

The holiday, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, is usually celebrated with parades and festivals but became a day of protest this year in the wake of demonstrations set off by George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police.

In addition to traditional cookouts and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation — the Civil War-era order that declared all enslaved people free in Confederate territory — Americans of all backgrounds were marching, holding sit-ins or taking part in car caravan protests.


Thousands of people gathered at a religious rally in Atlanta. Hundreds marched from St. Louis' Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott case partially played out, a pivotal one that denied citizenship to African Americans but galvanized the anti-slavery movement. Protesters and revelers held signs and pushed baby strollers in Dallas, danced to a marching band in Chicago and registered people to vote in Detroit.

“Now we have the attention of the world, and we are not going to let this slide,” Charity Dean, director of Detroit’s office of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity, said at an event that drew hundreds and called for an end to police brutality and racial inequality.

Events marking Juneteenth were planned in every major American city Friday, although some were being held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. At some events, including in Chicago and New York, participants packed together, though many wore masks. At others, masks were scarce.

Minnesota’s Black Lives Matter chapter took to the state Capitol to mark Juneteenth with a demand for reparations and real police reform.


Amid chants of “Reparations now” and “Cut the check,” Black Lives Matter organizers and several other activist groups called Floyd’s death a remnant of slavery’s legacy.

“For 400 years, the United States government has had its knee on the neck of the black community socially, politically, economically and spiritually,” said Trahern Crews, a leader of the Minnesota BLM chapter and organizer of the event. “Today we are here to demand full and complete reparations for the American descendants of the slaves who built this country.”

The issue of reparations resurged last Juneteenth, when a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing to examine the legacy of slavery and a possible path toward reparations. Several 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls expressed support for the idea.

Along with demands for reparations, the hundreds of demonstrators at the Capitol chided lawmakers for not agreeing on police reform legislation. The Democratic-controlled Minnesota House passed a broad package in this week's special session that went beyond measures approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, and there was no indication the two sides would come together ahead of adjournment.

“Right now while we’re standing on this lawn, their principles across the street at the Senate is to not pass any police accountability measures,” said John Thompson, a state House candidate and friend of Philando Castile, a Black man who was killed by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016.

In addition to the rally, a handful of celebrations and demonstrations were planned over the weekend, including multiple cookouts throughout Minneapolis on Friday and a run on Saturday in honor of Floyd that starts and ends at 38th and Chicago, the site of his death.


In Nashville, Tennessee, about two dozen Black men, most wearing suits, stood arm in arm in front of the city’s criminal courts. Behind them was a statue of Adolpho Birch, the first African American to serve as chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“If you were uncomfortable standing out here in a suit, imagine how you would feel with a knee to your neck,” said Phillip McGee, one of the demonstrators, referring to Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, and it became effective the following Jan. 1. But it wasn’t enforced in many places until after the Civil War ended in April 1865. Word didn’t reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas.

Most states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth — a blend of the words June and 19th — as a state holiday or day of recognition, like Flag Day. But with protests over Floyd's killing and a pandemic that's disproportionately harmed Black communities, more Americans — especially white people — are becoming familiar with the holiday and commemorating it.

“I feel hopeful and really, really proud to see the community of whites and Blacks joining together and for white people to really understand what the significance of Juneteenth is,” said Elaine Loving, who marched with her two daughters, grandchildren and hundreds of others in Portland, Oregon’s historically Black neighborhood, where she’s lived since 1959.


Some places that didn't already mark Juneteenth as a paid holiday moved in recent days to do so, including New York state.

In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a proclamation Friday to recognize Juneteenth Day. It came the week after Republican lawmakers voted to keep a day commemorating Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader, but remove the governor’s responsibility to sign the annual proclamation for it.

The growing recognition of Juneteenth comes as protests have yielded results, including policing reforms in several places. Also gaining momentum were longstanding demands to remove symbols and names associated with slavery and oppression.

Hundreds gathered in an Atlanta suburb Thursday night to watch a crane remove a Confederate monument that had stood in the town square since 1908. In Portland, Oregon, protesters who took to the streets for the 22nd consecutive night Thursday tore down a statue of George Washington that was erected in the 1920s.

In addition to big marches, smaller events were held. In Louisiana, community and environmental groups won a court fight to hold a Juneteenth ceremony at a site archaeologists have described as a probable cemetery for enslaved African Americans. Philadelphia residents staged impromptu celebrations after a parade and festival were canceled because of the pandemic, and St. Petersburg, Florida, unveiled of a blocklong mural that says “Black Lives Matter.”


“We know our lives matter. You don’t have to tell us that. We’re trying to tell the world that,” said Plum Howlett, a tattoo artist who painted part of the mural.

President Donald Trump issued a message for Juneteenth, which he said was “both a remembrance of a blight on our history and a celebration of our Nation’s unsurpassed ability to triumph over darkness.”

Trump had originally planned a rally Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but changed the date to Saturday amid an uproar about his appearance on a date of such significance. The city also is where white mobs attacked a prosperous black business district nearly a century ago, leaving as many as 300 people dead.

In New Orleans, where demonstrators were greeted with bowls of red beans and rice, speaker Malik Bartholomew offered a reminder.

“We celebrate Juneteenth in honor of the celebration of freedom, but guess what? We also have to celebrate the fight,” Bartholomew said.

Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee and Smith from Providence, Rhode Island. Associated Press writers Jim Salter in St. Louis, Phil Marcelo in Boston, Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida, Ron Harris in Atlanta, Janet McConnaughey and Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans and Gillian Flaccus in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this report. Mohamed Ibrahim, a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, contributed to this report. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.