Four Black Social Activists Share What Juneteenth Means To Them

As for this house, we celebrate Juneteenth.

Human Interest

Juneteenth aka Freedom Day aka Emancipation Day aka June 19, 1865, commemorates the actual end of slavery. Contrary to popular belief, July 4, 1776, was not inclusive of all people per America's modus operandi; the 4th of July only represents the day that white male Americans became free. Thanks to social activists and the movement that is Black culture, Juneteenth's history, meaning, and importance have become more prevalent over the past few years.

It wasn't until very recently that I learned that the Statue of Liberty doesn't only represent the strength and resilience of immigrants but was initially created to celebrate the emancipation of slaves. The more I learn about Juneteenth the more I feel an immense duty to celebrate my blackness every day but even more on June 19th. We owe it to General Granger, the Union soldiers, and our ancestors to celebrate the culture and achievements of Black folks because we deserve that. We deserve celebration.

As we continue to live out loud, we thought it was important to share the stories of the women who show up for the culture and fight for freedom from all chains every day. Keep reading for what that looks like for these social justice mavens.

Share the story of how you learned about Juneteenth.

Now that I look back on growing up in the midwest with a household of four generations, our daily life defined how we had overcome so many racial injustices and impacts of slavery. My grandfather migrated to Detroit, Michigan for a job in the factory shortly after becoming an entrepreneur and buying a home in a prestigious Detroit neighborhood where blacks weren't welcome at one point and time. My grandmother worked a good job at the hospital and my mom was the first to go to college in our family. They worked hard and we lived well, with almost every holiday being a really big occasion showcasing our gratitude and how far our family had come with my grandfather sharing stories of how he remembers his grandparents who picked cotton — Juneteenth was an empowering day filled with family traditions in the backyard.

What does Juneteenth mean to you?

When [talking about] slavery, I like to make a conscious effort to look at it with a multi-lens approach rather than just the 400 years America dates it to. Juneteenth is an opportunity to learn, share and express the knowledge and truth of who black people were before slavery, what we went through as slaves, and how we are moving toward the future.

How do you define freedom?

Freedom is the ability to think, do and be with no limits or restraints whether that be physical, mental or emotional. While freedom for my ancestors meant not being a slave and having full citizenship rights, in today's time my generation is facing the challenges of breaking free from a learned limiting mindset to a life of unlimited possibility and purpose.

How are you celebrating Juneteenth this year?

My life's work holds the commitment of being even more intentional about my servant leadership dedicating philanthropic time and efforts to racial disparities of black Americans. Later this year, a national non-profit that I co-founded with an amazing group of leaders will be launching that positively impact black Americans who have been impacted by slavery. Having a direct hand in the impact of racial disparities of wealth that still impacts community, families, and individuals is something that should not be swept under the rug, but confronted in the most honest and transformational way. We are coming to change generations.

Share the story of how you learned about Juneteenth.

I feel like the story of Juneteenth is a story that has always lived with me and has been part of the fabric of my life that has informed my Blackness. I cannot pinpoint when exactly I learned about it. I remember feeling literal jubilee when learning that my people wasted no time once they learned they were free exiting those plantations and casting off the label of chattel.

What does Juneteenth mean to you?

Juneteenth is about ancestral veneration and commemorating the bold act of love that our ancestors exercised in choosing to live and survive under the most horrific circumstances. Juneteenth also reminds me that you truly cannot stop freedom from coming. You cannot stop the freedom train because it is always on time.

How do you define freedom?

Angela Davis teaches us that "freedom is a constant struggle." Which means we must always struggle to keep it, take it, and define it for ourselves. Freedom to me is Black people being free from premature death engineered by racism, Black people being able to love themselves and embody their gender and sexuality as they define them and freedom to access their bodily sovereignty without the fear of state violence or interference. Black people being free to access the full range of their emotions, rest, and joy while having all of their basic needs met and not feeling like they must be excellent to matter. This freedom cannot happen unless our indigenous kin gets their lands back and figure out how to stop this climate disaster.

How are you celebrating Juneteenth this year?

I will journal, tend to my altar, meditate on freedom, and share the love with the Black people in my life.

"Juneteenth is a time for all Black people situated in these United States never to forget that we are miracles. We were not meant to survive, and yet here we are. We must not ever forget that no Black person is free until we are all free."

Juneteenth being in Pride Month is also an invitation for all Black people to never forget about our queer, transgender, and non-binary kin whose freedom is also bound up with our collective Black freedom. There were queer folks on the plantation and those slave ships. It's all of us or none of us.

Share the story of how you learned about Juneteenth.

I grew up in New York City, when I was about six or seven, I went to the Juneteenth festival in Harlem with my grandparents. That's when I first learned about Juneteenth. I initially learned about it as a celebration of life. As the years progressed, I was introduced to more of the history and I was able to engage in thoughtful conversations with the elders of my family. My grandparents are "Old World" Harlem, they spent a lot of time when I was a child and even now in their 91 years of living, teaching me and younger members of my family who we are and where we come from.

What does Juneteenth mean to you?

Juneteenth is a reminder that I do not exist alone and I am a reflection of every single one of my ancestors. I like to think of myself as an embodied figure of ghosts. Juneteenth reminds me that I am rooted in their struggles and their joys on a day-to-day basis.

How do you define freedom?

Freedom is waking up every morning and thanking the spirits who cradled me as I slept and who will have my back all day as I fulfill their wildest dreams. Freedom is curiosity; it's the space to be curious about me and this world. Freedom is detangling myself from the racist, sexist, capitalist, and colonized structures of our society that attempt to grip me and hold me down. Freedom is liberation and liberation is an internal experience that cannot be taken away.

How are you celebrating Juneteenth this year?

This probably isn't the most exciting response, but I will celebrate as I celebrate my life every day, by giving thanks to those who came before me and showing myself the utmost respect and care by choosing to rest because I and they deserve it.

Dajai Monae, Social Activist

Courtesy of Dajai Monae

Share the story of how you learned about Juneteenth.

Growing up, I never knew the importance of Juneteenth. I just knew my family and community would celebrate by coming together to barbecue, gather and talk. That was the norm for many years until I was old enough to research on my own. What I thought I knew, just a generic version of the truth, became much greater and important to me. The day enslaved African-Americans learned they were free in the south. This meant free from bondage, free from abuse, free from "ownership". This was also a turn for African-Americans as this moment emphasized achievements and education.

What does Juneteenth mean to you?

Juneteenth inspires me to keep educating my community about the modern-day liberations we deserve as a community. Never forget how far we've come as a community and how far we need to go as a community. Juneteenth is more than barbecuing and gathering, although we deserve it plus more, but it also means celebrating the sacrifices our ancestors took for us to get here.

How do you define freedom?

Some people believe because we're "free" we have "freedom". Freedom for me looks like reparations for my community. Equal opportunity for my community. An equal justice system for my community. Free from the mental chains placed on our black men and boys as they step foot out their doors. Physically free from the harsh sentencing placed on our minority community for small defenses. Freedom comes in many forms, because we are free from the chains does not mean we are truly free in this country.

How are you celebrating Juneteenth this year?

This year is different for me in terms of celebrating because of the pandemic. I usually participate in marches, rallies, and conferences. This year I will educate my community virtually by going live via social media and spreading knowledge to others. Also, go grab some of that barbecue my family loves to make.

Last year and this year there was a spark within grassroots leaders and fighters. It amazed me to see how much attention was brought to an ongoing fight within our community. As a community, let's keep this fight going on and off the streets and remember we have children looking up to us. We must pave the way for them as our ancestors did for us.

Featured image courtesy of Meagan Ward

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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