June 19th, known as Juneteenth, marks the anniversary of the official end of slavery in the USA in 1865. It only took a nationwide Civil War for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to be enforced across the USA by 1865. I often joke that we should have let the Confederacy secede. I really don’t want anything to do with the Southern USA. But the Civil War freed people that were kept in bondage as property, so it was a noble and necessary fight. Here we are, 155 years later, and we still limit freedoms in the USA based upon the color of one’s skin.
I grew up in an all-white Chicago suburban neighborhood. I rarely saw black people except when watching Chicago Cubs baseball on WGN TV. I treasured an autograph from Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, for decades. He was my first hero, and he was black. But in late 1965, 100 years after the first Juneteenth, Dr. Martin Luther King moved to Chicago. He was prominent in the local news for the rest of 1965 and all of 1966, leading peaceful equal rights marches through Chicago’s streets. I got a chance to see him in the summer of 1966.
I was 8 years old at the time. My father had passed away over the winter. It was just me and an overprotective, grieving mother in our family home. We were spending a day on the East Side of Chicago with extended family. How can Chicago have an East Side when it is built on the western shore of Lake Michigan? The East Side is down on the Indiana border where the land starts to curl east under Lake Michigan.
It was a truly awful neighborhood built around now-defunct steel mills in which my maternal grandfather toiled until he died while in his 40s. I always knew when we were getting close to the East Side because I could smell it.
I was one of the younger cousins, and my older cousins who lived on the East Side decided to go see a King march in the area. I followed along just to be with my older, cool cousins. There was no way I could get lost. I was part of a huge throng of white people moving in one direction. I didn’t notice the rocks, bricks, and bottles in their hands until they started throwing them at marchers. I don’t know if my cousins threw anything. I don’t recall throwing anything. It didn’t seem right to me. But I stayed there and watched. That was wrong.
Now I am the father of 2 black young adults. I almost didn’t make it. My mother just about killed me when she heard I was at the march. Not because it was wrong to be there as part of an angry white mob, but because I could have gotten hurt.
My mother advised me and my wife against our first adoption, mainly because the child was black. We had to train my mother not to use racial slurs that she thought were endearing. But I will give her some credit. She loved all her grandchildren.
My mother is now gone, and her black grandchildren are adults that recently marched in a Black Lives Matter protest. The protest was eventually ended when tear gas cannisters were launched at marchers. Is it progress that it was the police lobbing projectiles at marchers? Is it progress that the projectiles were cannisters of tear gas and not glass bottles, bricks, or rocks? We should celebrate 155 years of Juneteenth, but also understand that we still have many years and a long way to go until all are fully free.