June 19: Juneteenth and Civil Rights

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America is in the midst of an identity crisis with regard to the issue of race, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and others by police officers, with protests still ongoing throughout the nation. Black Lives Matter and other groups are making demands for police reform and legislation to reduce the systemic racism which is recognized by many as an ongoing thorn in the side of a nation built upon the principle of liberty and justice for all.

But June 19th is a day with a long history of connection to these issues. Let’s turn back the clock.

June 19, 1865

The Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse more than two months ago. In the wake of this collapse of Confederate resistance in the east, the Union push down the Mississippi River and through the other theaters of the Civil War have brought about a domino effect of surrendering Confederate armies, with the final holdouts mostly in Texas and in the so-called Indian Territory that would later become the state of Oklahoma. The final battle of the war was fought at Palmito Ranch near Brownsville, Texas, in May, and ironically was a Confederate victory, though the victors surrendered a few short days afterwards on orders from Lt. General Kirby Smith, who officially disbanded the Army of the Trans-Mississippi on May 26 in Galveston, Texas, on the Gulf Coast.

It is here worth mentioning, simply as a point of interest and perhaps of surprise to some, that the final Confederate general to surrender will be Brigadier General Standhope Uwatie, who is on this June 19th still patrolling with his troops in what will one day be known as Oklahoma. Uwatie is the principal chief of the Cherokee nation, and his cavalry corps of Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Osage tribespeople have been fighting alongside the Confederacy for years. Some natives in the South, including Uwatie, had adopted Southern practices such as plantation building, cotton growing, and slave ownership; during their forced relocation to the Indian Territory in the 1830s, the Cherokee had been accompanied by around 1,600 African slaves, and Uwatie himself owned a large and prosperous plantation. Uwatie, joined by many other natives,  had joined forces with the Confederate army in an attempt to prolong what had become a profitable way of life, but he will surrender in just a few days, on June 23.

After Kirby Smith disbanded the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi, Union leaders organized for a swift transition of power in the western regions of the Confederacy. Major General Gordon Granger has been assigned command of the military District of Texas, and is therefore responsible for keeping law and order in the region until a new state government can be established. He landed yesterday in Galveston, accompanied by 2,000 Federal Troops to begin the occupation of Texas. Today, June 19th, he gathers the populace of Galveston to hear the reading of General Order Number 3, his first official mandate for the District of Texas.

Reading from a high balcony, he begins the Order with the following words.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

The remaining contents of the order, including such information as the locations to which all harvested cotton must be delivered, are generally overshadowed, if they can be heard at all amidst the celebrations of the newly emancipated former slaves who throng the streets of Galveston, amidst a rather silent crowd of many of their former masters.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had declared all these people to be free two and a half years prior, of course, but in all practical terms, the Emancipation Proclamation had meant nothing at all to slaves in Confederate territories like Texas which by definition did not recognize Lincoln’s authority. The Emancipation Proclamation had effectively freed no-one; it did not apply to border states loyal to the Union, in which many slaveholders still existed, nor to Confederate territories already under Union military control, and could not by definition apply to states that had seceded from the Union and no longer recognized it as a legal authority. It is on this day, forever after remembered as Juneteenth, that the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation finally becomes a reality for former Southern slaves.

It is worth briefly noting that the language of Order Number 3 is a reminder that both General Granger and the Union as a whole still relied upon the labor of the now freed black population to harvest cotton and deliver it to be transported to northeastern textile manufacturers. The goal of General Order 3 was, yes, to free the slaves, but also to ensure that their productivity as laborers and harvesters of cotton was impacted as minimally as possible. Hence the language encouraging them to remain on the same plantations as they always had, with the sole real change in their status being the ability to collect wages. Nonetheless, the fact that this desire is now expressed by the word “advise” rather than “demand” or “decree” demonstrates that the new status of the former slaves was indeed being taken seriously.

The freedmen of Texas will begin celebrating the anniversary of June 19th immediately, recognizing the anniversary of their freedom with huge gatherings to share food and fellowship, play games, sing songs, and often educate their community about the past and with an eye towards the future. These early celebrations will often be made difficult, however, by officials who refuse to allow the use of public parks or land, resulting in many early Juneteenth celebrations being held on the grounds of churches or on private land which the local African American community pooled funds to buy. Gradually, Juneteenth will become a holiday in many other states; by 2020, it will be a recognized state holiday in 47 of 50 states, excluding only Hawaii and the Dakotas.

For now, though, as the people of Galveston celebrate their newly proclaimed freedom, let’s turn the clock forward to another June 19th, nearly a hundred years closer to our present day.

June 19th, 1964

In the 99 years since the original Juneteenth proclamation, America has seemingly taken great steps forward in creating a land of liberty and justice for all people, regardless of race. However, it has been a hard fought battle, and in many cases every two steps forward have led to at least one step back.

Shortly after the Civil War, three Constitutional amendments became national law. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth guaranteed former slaves equal treatment under the laws, and the Fifteenth granted them the right to vote. Each of these, however, was in its own way subtly or overtly undermined. Practices like sharecropping kept many people subjected to landlords in a relationship that had little to separate it from true slavery, enforced segregation and a too-frequently biased legal system made “equal treatment under the laws” a distant dream, and the right to vote was infringed upon by the addition of requirements such as poll taxes or deliberately unfair literacy tests. Attempts to prevent such discrimation often failed. For example, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 decreed an end of segregation in public spaces and transportation. Less than a decade later, however, this decree was overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, because it was declared an overstep of Federal power into an issue that was solely the responsibility of states.

Through the the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights Movement has been gathering force. Boycotts and demonstrations have led to some significant positive shifts, including the mandate for the desegregation of schools following Brown vs. the Board of Education, though many schools across the nation remain unofficially segregated. Still, segregation as a whole remains in effect and practices such as the poll tax continue to severely constrain the black right to vote. Bias in courts, mob violence, police brutality, and white supremacist groups like the Klu Klux Klan all remain as continual forces of practical, daily opposition to the theoretical equality between all races in America.

And now, on June 19th of 1964, America is in the midst of some of the most turbulent years of recent history. Last year, President John F. Kennedy proposed the most significant and ambitious piece of Civil Rights legislation in the last hundred years, designed to secure African Americans a truly and practically equal right to vote, mandate desegregation of public facilities and schools as a matter of federal law, prohibit discrimination on the basis of race (or several other factors) in public businesses, and ensure equal employment opportunity for all. Kennedy’s proposal was immediately blocked by a lengthy filibuster and was not passed into law.

A month later, though, the March on Washington and the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech helped to galvanize American lawmakers and the American public, giving new strength to the Civil Rights Movement and a second chance to push the Civil Rights Bill into law. Kennedy never got the chance to do so, however, as he was assassinated in November while driving through the streets of Dallas in his presidential motorcade–all of which is a story for another day.

Kennedy’s successor, however, Lyndon B. Johnson, has brought Kennedy’s proposal back to Congress as one of the top priorities of his first year as President of the United States, and has mustered all of his connections to try to push the bill into law.

It’s worth noting that at this point in American history, the divisions over the issue of civil rights has less to do with party lines than with geographical location. Both Kennedy and Johnson, who proposed the bill, are Democrats, but so is the bill’s chief opponent, Richard B. Russel Jr., a Georgia Democrat who was instrumental in the filibuster which strangled the same legislation a year ago. And one of the most important supporters of the bill in 1964 will be a Republican. We’ll mention him again in a moment.

We should also take a moment to briefly talk about the concept of a filibuster. In the early years of the United States Senate, when debates over a bill to be passed had reached their conclusion or were becoming unproductive, it was possible for any Senate member to suggest that it was time to bring the issue to a vote. The members of the Senate would then vote on whether they agreed that the debate was sufficiently concluded; if a majority voted in favor, then the original bill would be brought to a vote. Or, to put it in simpler terms, they had to vote to determine whether they were ready to vote. In 1806, Aaron Burr suggested that this was rather redundant, and it’s hard to disagree with him. The Senate rules were changed to eliminate the need for the initial vote. As an unintended side effect, however, there was no longer an established way to bring a debate over a bill to an end. As a result, even a tiny minority could effectively stall or even completely block a bill simply by refusing to stop debating it; they just had to continually speak, whether about the bill in question or something else (some have literally read the phone book). Thus, the filibuster was born. (It’s a bit more complex than that, unsurprisingly, and it’s not strictly an American innovation; the Romans had their own versions of it, and it’s shown up in a variety of different government systems. But for our purposes today, this summary is enough.)

The Senate did create rules to block a filibuster, eventually, but it had become an important part of government practice. In 1964, at least a ⅔ majority is required to invoke what is called cloture and force the end of a filibuster. This means that as long as at least 34 senators are opposed to the bill, they could block it indefinitely. 

One might note, incidentally, that with 2020 hindsight it seems that Aaron Burr’s understandable attempt to remove redundancy in senate practices was a truly spectacular failure.

To bring us back to June of 1964, Richard Russell has once again led a filibuster to try to block Johnson’s reintroduction of the Civil Rights Bill, and managed with the help of many Democratic and a few Republican allies to stall the legislative process for days on end. One speaker, Robert Byrd, a Democratic senator who had been a member of the Klu Klux Klan, spoke for over 14 hours. (Byrd, who remained active in the Democratic party until his death in 2010, later spoke of this and his Klan membership as some of the greatest regrets of his life.) In total, the filibuster continued for 60 day.

Ten days ago, however, thanks largely to the intervention of Republican senator Everett Dirksen, a few Republican swing votes decide to lend their support to a vote for cloture. At the official vote, Dirksen famously called the bill, quoting from Victor Hugo, “an idea whose time has come,” saying in addition “The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied.” As the verbal vote was called around the room, one senator remained silent; Clair Engle was dying of a brain tumor and had lost his ability to speak, but was still present. To signify his vote, he pointed upwards to his face; “eye.” In the end, the cloture vote came in at 71 for, 29 against. For the first time, a filibuster of a civil rights bill was broken.

And now here we are, on June 19th of 1964. Over the last ten days, the Senate and House together have worked to create the final draft of the most ambitious civil rights bill in nearly a hundred years. Finally, the vote is called. 73 for, 27 against. Of those in favor, 46 are Democrats and 27 are Republicans. Of those against, 21 are Democrats and 6 are Republicans.

President Johnson will officially sign the bill into law a few weeks from now, on July 2. But the passage of the bill on this Juneteenth anniversary marks a massive step forward in the quest for an America in which liberty and justice will truly be for all.

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