Black America is poised on Saturday to observe Juneteenth, one of the oldest celebrations commemorating the end of slavery and religious oppression.
Nearly two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 to announce that the Civil War had ended and that slaves were free. The end of the war also meant the end of extreme religious persecution, where Blacks in some states like South Carolina were being forced to worship in secret because all-Black churches were outlawed. Since 1865, Black Texans, and others throughout the nation, have celebrated Juneteenth as a commemoration of freedom and an affirmation of Black culture and perseverance.
But Friday’s celebration takes on new urgency after a 21-year-old White gunman on Wednesday opened fire on a bible study group at the historic predominantly Black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing eight people, according to ABC News. One other person was rushed to the hospital and later died.
Dylann Roof was arrested Thursday during a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina, following the rampage. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said her office was investigating whether to charge Roof with a hate crime motivated by racial or other prejudice. Such crimes typically carry harsher penalties, Reuters writes.
Indeed, the arrest and killings come amid rising racial tensions in the U.S., after months of protests over the deaths of mostly unarmed Blacks by police officers, including Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina.
One of the victims in Wednesday’s slaying, notes CNN, was the church’s politically active pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was outspoken about Scott’s brutal death at the hands of White former police officer Michael Slager, who shot the fleeing man in the back.
Pinckney was also a state senator and a spokesman for the state’s Black community, roles that may have offended Roof, who stood up at the church and announced he was there “to shoot Black people,” a law enforcement official told CNN.
Surely, it was no mistake that the gunman picked Emanuel, which has played a pivotal role in Black history, including in the abolition of slavery. Because of its storied past, the church draws visitors from around the world and it is not unusual for Whites to fill the pews of the church, which was founded in 1816.
Emanuel mirrors the struggles of its congregants, overcoming obstacle after obstacle and growing to become the largest African-American church in terms of seating space in Charleston today.
“Where you are is a very special place in Charleston,” the Rev. Pinckney, told a group of visitors two years ago, according to The Washington Post. “It’s a very special place because this site, this area, has been tied to the history and life of African-Americans since about the early 1800s.”
To be sure, this is not the first and last time that Whites will try to punish Emanuel for serving as an empowering home for Black people. But Blacks should remain vigilant and resolute in the fight against racial and religious oppression in the U.S., and we should give a special nod to Emanuel and its victims Friday during our Juneteenth celebrations.