Juneteenth: The Slave’s Cause, the Socialists’ Cause

“After emancipation there would come questions of labor, wage and political power. But now, first, must be demanded that ordinary human freedom and recognition of essential manhood which slavery blasphemously denied. This philosophy of freedom was a logical continuation of the freedom philosophy of the eighteenth century which insisted that Freedom was not an End but an indispensable means to the beginning of human progress and that democracy could function only after the dropping of feudal privileges, monopoly and chains. ”–W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America (1935)

Juneteenth was named by the formerly enslaved people of Texas after union troops entered Galveston, Texas, and declared them  free. This was some two months after the Civil War had ended and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had outlawed slavery in rebelling states. It is important to note that this day was not the formal end of slave labor in the United States; the legal practice of slavery continued in some border states until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. (The amendment did not abolish slavery or “indentured servitude” for people who are imprisoned.) The newly recognized federal holiday and the practice of the celebration itself extends to the whole country  the various emancipation, freedom and liberty days celebrated by African Americans across the former slave states. It is also important to understand that the celebration is a needed stop on the road to liberation; the discarding of our chains.

Reconstruction was not the defining moment that could lead to a transition away from monopoly, capitalist exploitation, and racial oppression. In fact, the failures of this period further cemented these structures. Whereas before the Civil War the Fugitive Slave Act was used to terrorize all Black people and enforce  the social and economic order upon enslaved bodies, after the war, slavery by other names continued..

“The propaganda which made the abolition movement terribly real was the Fugitive Slave-the piece of intelligent humanity who could say : I have been owned like an ox. I stole my own body and now I am hunted by law and lash to be made an ox again”  W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America (1935)

After the brief period of Reconstruction,  freed-people were pushed into predatory sharecropping relationships, often with their former enslavers. The effectiveness of the Force Acts of 1870 – 1871, intended to deter white supremacist violence, would quickly be discarded as radical white supremacists took Southern state power. 

Black Codes across the southern states paired with voting rights restrictions pressed African Americans into a specific social and economic place of oppression. Policing institutions that were installed after theCivil War to help maintain order both at the local and federal levels would almost immediately be made into institutions for further repression.One brutal instance of this was the formation of the Mississippi Levee Delta camps in which Black sharecroppers returned to work on the levees largely built by enslaved people. 

“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America (1935)

During this time, resistance continued,from the development of Carter G. Woodson’s discussion of the mis-education of the Negro to strikes and labor actions. The interactions between Black workers and labor organizations and strikes was highly complicated,as labor organizing at this time largely remained segregated. Some labor organizations and unions refused to admit Black members. Even successful strikes that would inevitably be weakened as white unions turned away from supporting equality and human rights of Black workers.

A well-documented example of this is covered in New Orleans Dock Workers Race, Labor, and Unionism 1892-1923. Solidarity for Civil Rights did take form in  We Charge Genocide, a book- length petition to the United Nations on state-sanctioned brutality. This petition was written with the Civil Rights Congress and the U.S. Communist Party. Some key writers of this petition were William L. Patterson, W.E.B. Dubois, and Paul Robeson among others from the Civil Rights Congress. Meanwhile, Black labor organizers like A. Philip Randolph, a Socialist Party member, would take up the fight on both fronts. He was both a founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a key contributor to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where the renowned Christian socialist Martin Luther King Jr. spoke.

The recurring theme of state-sanctioned violence and repression via police forces continued. Another significant marker on the road to emancipation was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These hard-won fights against human suffering will always be under-realized unless we end capitalism. Capitalism has not delivered equality or democracy to its workers, and any gains made by workers have come at high prices. Just as enslaved people were not handed freedom and recognition as human beings, neither have workers’ rights been granted under capitalism. The struggle continues, and DSA members involve themselves in these struggles. One ongoing example is the campaign against Cop City in Atlanta, Georgia. Various organizations and environmental activists, abolitionists, labor activists, and socialists are working to stop this institution that would undoubtedly produce more human suffering. 

While doing this work, we should borrow from the example of Opal Lee who never stopped campaigning for Juneteenth’s recognition. The cause of freedom, the slave’s cause is one to celebrate. As we struggle, there is much to be proud of.

“. . .democracy could function only after the dropping of feudal privileges, monopoly and chains.” —W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America (1935)

John Lewis is a Steering Committee Member for DSA’s National Abolition Working group. He is a member of New Orleans DSA and a former co-chair of Baton Rouge DSA. He’s been organizing with various groups, campaigns and student organizations since 2010.