In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, set to take effect on January 1, 1863, and freeing all slaves in most of the rebel Confederate states. This Wednesday, June 19, we will celebrate Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when a Union officer brought the news to slaves in Galveston, Texas, that they had actually been freed two and a half years earlier. Nobody had bothered to tell them.


What would it have been like to be a slave owner in Galveston, Texas and learn that all slaves had been emancipated? Do you tell your slaves? What will they do? How will you run your plantation without them? And what happened when the slaves did find out, two and a half years later? Was there retribution? Did the former slave owners worry that the slaves would bring down their captors and then dance with glee on the far shore, like the freed Israelites fleeing Egypt through the Red Sea? Did the slaves just walk away? Where did they go? Did they wander in the wilderness, like the Israelites? Who helped them find their way, get on their feet?


This is still a new federal holiday for us, although some people in Black communities have been celebrating it all along. And it’s an interesting choice for a holiday, because it embodies both liberation and the way that liberation was denied and delayed in Galveston by the white people who had the power to enact it but chose not to do so because it was inconvenient for them.


A radio show this week—I think it was “Today, Explained” on KUOW—took on the question of whether the descendants of enslaved people should receive reparations. They asked a bunch of people for their opinions. The strongest pushback they heard was from a white farmer in the south who said that Blacks are just lazy; they just want things given to them that they haven’t earned. Except for his family’s land, he hasn’t had anything given to him his whole life—he’s had to work for everything. Let’s rewind that tape: Except for his family’s land. And he’s a farmer, so there’s a lot of land. He’s just put his finger on one of the key issues.


You may recall that freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule after the Civil War. Very few people actually got that, and where it did happen, white people often found ways, through Jim Crow rules and cheating and lying, to grab those 40 acres back again.


For Black families, the path to owning a home or owning land has been strewn with racist obstacles that white people just do not encounter. We’ve all heard of redlining, which was another way of keeping Black people out of many neighborhoods and forcing them to all live together in a neighborhood with fewer amenities and lower home values. Families accumulate wealth through home ownership, and they pass that wealth down to their children, who pass it along to their children. The GI Bill, which helped so many returning soldiers get an education and buy a home after WWII, didn’t apply to Black soldiers. Black families have been intentionally and systematically shut out of the American dream for centuries, even after emancipation.


Is that emancipation? Is that liberation? How is our society liberated as a whole when we continue to oppress huge swaths of our people?


You no doubt recall that 12 years ago, George Zimmerman, a white man, took it upon himself to kill Trayvon Martin, a Black teen armed with a hoodie, a cell phone, and Skittles candy, for having the temerity to walk through a white neighborhood.


Then there was Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man hunted down by three white men for daring to go out for a run. Looked suspicious. Better shoot him, just in case.


Just this month, a white man in Renton murdered a teen of color who was walking with two friends toward a Big 5 store to return an air gun that was defective. Despite being told repeatedly that these air guns were not actual weapons, despite the three boys doing everything that the white man told them to, he opened fire on one of them, Hazrat Ali Rohani, shot him 7 times: . Killed him. Ironically, the killer said he “had a duty to act to stop the individuals from hurting someone innocent.” Which is exactly what the killer did. [See Marcus Harrison Green, “We’ve learned nothing since George Zimmerman,” Seattle Times, June 15, 2024, pp. A8-A9.]


As a society, we love our white privilege, and we love our guns. Look at the price we pay.


Are we liberated? Are we free of the effects of racism, whether we’re white or Black or something else? Do we live in a society where all people experience liberation? Of course not.


How do white people come to terms with the legacy of how Black people have been treated in this country? Are we afraid of retribution? Do we project our fears onto the Black people, make this situation somehow all their fault? “Oh, they’re just lazy.” “They’re not smart enough to make it on their own.” Those are lies.


Where do we begin? How do we make it right?


Let me introduce you to Opal Lee, a 97-year-old Black woman who lives in Fort Worth, Texas. On Juneteenth—June 19—1939, when Opal was 12, a crowd showed up outside the home that her parents had just bought, that her family had just moved into. They were a Black family in a white neighborhood. 500 “neighbors” showed up at their house to “welcome” them to the neighborhood. This mob ran the family out, broke the windows, dragged their furniture out onto the lawn, and chopped it up. Her parents would have been justified in hauling all 500 of these “neighbors” into court and demanding justice. But what would that accomplish? Her parents moved on and never spoke of it again. A Black family trying to live a decent life in a white-dominated society: they had to swallow their anger and grief and just live someplace else. Is that what liberation looks like? Is that what justice looks like for those 500 thugs? Can’t we do better?


According to an article about Opal Lee in the Seattle Times yesterday, “In recent years, Lee has become known as the ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’ after spending years rallying people to join her in what became a successful push to make June 19 a national holiday.” [Jamie Stengle and Kendria Lafleur, “85 years after mob drove away family, woman gets home,” p. A2.]


Lee found out that Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth had purchased the lot where her family’s house once stood. Lee called Trinity Habitat’s CEO, a longtime friend, and told him the story of what had happened there. He sold her the lot for $10, and Habitat built her a new home there. She moved in last Friday at the age of 97. This time the welcome was real. The mayor of Fort Worth, a white woman, gave Opal Lee a big hug. Lots of people were there, not to destroy, but to cheer. And Opal Lee wants to have an open house “so she can meet her new neighbors. ‘Everybody will know that this is going to be a happy place,’ she said.” [Ibid.]


Opal Lee is living in a heart-space of liberation, and she is inviting the rest of us to do so, too. She is the one offering grace, love, and welcome.


So many racist, gun-toting vigilantes call themselves Christian, but I do not recognize the Christ they seem to worship. I do see in Opal Lee an embodiment of the Apostle Paul’s marks of the true follower of Christ. Paul wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:15-18.)


That’s what I see Opal Lee doing. She doesn’t seem to bear a grudge. She does insist on justice and liberation—for everyone.


Friends, we live in a violent, racist, gun-thirsty nation. Jesus lived in violent times, too. He did not pick up arms; in fact, he did the opposite. He did not oppress or exclude; he invited people to know they are all loved by God and all have value in God’s eyes. To follow Jesus, be intentional about casting off any notion of white supremacy. Be intentional about addressing the racism within and without, in the very air we breathe, in the legacy of slavery that we have inherited. Be intentional about speaking up for justice. On this Juneteenth, let us dedicate ourselves anew to living with a heart of liberation for all, because it is only when all are liberated—liberated from oppression and racism, liberated from feeling that they have to be vigilante thugs—that we are liberated, too. May Opal Lee’s wish for her new home be our wish as well: “Everybody will know that this is going to be a happy place.” Amen.

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