Juneteenth: celebrating the struggle for freedom

Black graphic with white text reading #BlackLivesMatter "You don't change the world with the ideas in your mind, but with the conviction in your heart." - Bryan Stevenson
Image from Virgin.com
Image of Joshua Wiese smiling to the camera
by Joshua Wiese
18 June 2020

Many Americans are celebrating Juneteenth, a day that acknowledges when freedom finally reached the depths of the defeated Confederacy in 1865 - nearly two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation’s signing, and two months after the end of the Civil War. Literally and symbolically, it was freedom delayed. 

155 years later, freedom for Black people is still delayed. Driven by the persistent, abhorrent narratives of white supremacy, slavery morphed into Jim Crow laws and organised racial terror. And it remains in the form of mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, and systematic exclusion from opportunities.

This is a moment for all of us to affirm our commitment to becoming more anti-racist and become better allies in the continued work to make freedom and equality a reality. 

Van Jones has called it the ‘Great Awakening’. The most visible evidence is the millions of people taking to the streets in protest to demand that Black Lives Matter, and energising efforts to end the systemic violence and brutality in our criminal justice and policing systems. We've been humbled by the many great leaders who have decades of experience navigating the persistent narratives, barriers, and interconnected systems that drive racial inequality. They’ve spent years building the movement’s capacity to ensure this 'Great Awakening' truly drives long term systemic change. People like Bryan Stevenson with the Equal Justice Initiative, Anthony Romero with ACLU, Van Jones with Reform, the author, professor and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander, and so many others.

One of the movement leaders who’s helped us understand how mass incarceration is connected to disenfranchisement and being shut out of the economy is Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC).

Meade led the effort to overturn one of the most sweeping holdovers of the Jim Crow era, Florida’s felony disenfranchisement law. It was written by white supremacist lawmakers in 1868 to prevent newly freed slaves from building political power. 

Florida, along with other southern states, permanently revoked voting rights from people with felony convictions - while at the same time making felonies of misdemeanor offenses commonly committed by Black Americans struggling to survive. By 1890, 90% of the prison population in the South was Black.

Millions of people in Florida, across the spectrum of racial and ethnic identities or political leanings, are directly impacted today. While racial bias at every level of the criminal legal system ensured the majority of those impacted are people of color, Meade seized the opportunity to build a bigger ‘we’ and succeeded. Hundreds of activists with past convictions organised to get Amendment 4 on the ballot, and thousands more organised to get out the vote. In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly supported amending the state’s constitution in what’s become the country’s biggest voter re-enfranchisement in half a century. 

Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia are the only remaining states that permanently disenfranchise voters once they have a past felony. FRRC accepted carveouts for certain types of convictions to get their law passed, so some people were left behind, but 48 states have policies and laws that disenfranchise people at some point. And voting is just one piece. 

All of them have a web of hundreds and sometimes thousands of collateral consequences that make life more difficult and limit civil rights. In Florida, you're immediately barred from serving on a jury or running for office. You're no longer eligible for many professional certifications required for jobs. There are neighborhoods where homeowners associations prevent you from buying or even renting a home. The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction has documented over 40,000 such barriers across the country. 

Leaders like Desmond Meade help us see how mass incarceration not only cages millions of people every year, but also permanently limits their civil rights, shaping who has power and who doesn't. They're helping us see, across complicated systems, some of the ways freedom is delayed. And they're helping us understand some of the ways we can step up and ensure we change for good the root causes of racial injustice.