On Friday, the nation observed the first federal Juneteenth Holiday, thanks to the patient and persistent work of Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee, Ms. Opal Lee and the Biden Administration. I admit to being underwhelmed at the news. So we celebrate enslaved people being told they were free 2 ½ years after the fact, and only then because armed Union troops delivered the message?
There are plenty of reasons for skepticism. Rebels desecrated the nation’s capital, we can’t get a $15 minimum wage, billionaires pay no federal income tax, affordable health care is under attack, green energy is not infrastructure, and hundreds of state laws are making it harder to vote. I was in a dark mood. Cynicism thrives on dreams deferred and rights denied.
There is an old saying — it’s always darkest just before dawn. Whether that is literally true or not, certainly, slavery was at its worst in the decade just before rebels began the Civil War by setting federal Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on fire in 1860. It is suitably familiar that Fort Sumter, just like the 2021 rebellion, grew out of a determination not to accept the results of a Presidential election. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law effectively erased the Mason Dixon line dividing slave from free territory and nationalized property rights in the ownership of people. The Supreme Court ruled against Dred and Harriet Scott in 1857, deciding that no Black persons were citizens and thus had no right to sue in federal court.
What a difference a few days can make. Today feels like the beginning of a new dawn for America. Today, I have hope that memory of Juneteenth celebrations will help dim the shock of the January 6th rebellion. I have hope that Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s “modest and technical majority opinion” upholding the Affordable Care Act decides the last challenge to the notion that health care is a fundamental human right.
I have hope for West VA Senator Manchin’s common-sense voting rights proposal which includes elements important to all sides of the debate: a ban on partisan redistricting, voter ID and 15 days of early voting. The proposal harkens back to the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which required identification, but allowed multiple forms of commonly held papers, including utility bills showing name and address. It is a mistake to assume that opponents of this era’s voter ID provisions do not value ballot security. It is the government-issued photo ID that often excludes poor, rural, young and Black voters. And Senators Blunt and McConnell should be ashamed of the dog whistle, race-baiting attack on the proposal because Stacey Abrams has endorsed it. The differences between Abrams and Manchin are that she is female, Black and from a state that is very closely divided. Senator Manchin is white, male and from a state that is only 3% Black.
If these seem like thin threads from which to weave a rope of optimism, please take into consideration that to be Black in America is to look for light in the midst of darkness. For now, it is enough to encourage me and other activists to write, to speak, to organize and to continue to believe in the promise of this grand experiment in self-government. Few of us have had to endure our home being torched as Ms. Opal Lee did when she was merely twelve years old. Yet, we must insist on making good use of the hard lessons of the past. She has turned racial resentment into a cause for celebration. Today, I am reminded of the power of the simple yet elegant slogan of my mentor, The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Keep Hope Alive. Hope lives more by intention than by accident. Hope lives in the Freedom Rides organized by Tosha Brown and Black Voters Matter and Barbara Arnwine and the Transformative Justice Coalition. In a 1979 speech, Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, NCNW President Emerita said, “Well, you know, the initials of what we call [ourselves] is WIC. And it if means that if each one of us, no matter whether we are Black or White, should go back into her community and be like a wick, lighted, that could be — that little bit of light, that could make a difference.” So at least for awhile longer, this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
Janice L. Mathis, Esq.
Executive Director, NCNW, Inc.