Two national holidays have passed through our consciousness in the last few weeks. One is the traditional holiday of July 4, when we celebrate the idea of equality and the anniversary of proclaiming the independence of the colonies from England. The other one is newly minted: Juneteenth, the celebration of the official end of slavery in the United States, remembering that the word of such liberation took two and one half years to reach those people held as slaves in Texas.
These two holidays represent the tense relationship and dialogue between two ideas that have shaped the character of America. July 4 remembers the powerful idea of equality, the idea that all people are created by God with equal dignity. This profound understanding of equality – originally meant only for those males classified as “white” – is one of the great gifts of the USA to the world experience. It is such a powerful idea that the white males could not contain its power. Women heard that it applied to them also. Indigenous people heard that it meant them also. Those of African descent, many of whom were held as slaves in America, heard that the idea of equality applied to them as well. Those people who love someone of the same gender heard that they were included too. It is such a powerful idea that it cannot be contained by any one group.
The second idea is seen in the remembrance of Juneteenth: the idea that some people are not equal – that some people are meant to dominate, and some are meant to be inferior. Though we will now begin recognizing Juneteenth as the end of slavery, we should note that slavery did not really end until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and it still exists in prison through the 13th Amendment. The idea of slavery holds power in the consciousness of many of us, with its emphasis that some people are meant to rule, and some people are meant to be ruled. Juneteenth reminds us of this struggle in American history – the idea of white supremacy that undergirded slavery (and still holds such power in our culture) always seeking to contain and thwart the idea of equality, as it seeks to break out and inform the consciousness of every individual and culture.
As we conclude our Juneteenth and July 4 celebrations this year, let us give thanks for the idea of equality that informs much of our lives together. Let us also be mindful that the idea of slavery/white supremacy still holds such powerful force in our culture. We see it in the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013, in the Big Lie of the “stolen election,” in the voter suppression laws being passed by states even as this is written, and in last week’s 6-3 SCOTUS decision that upheld the voter suppression laws of Arizona.
In the years to come, let us put these two national holidays together, and let us use the two week period between them as a time of dialogue between and about these two forces in our history: equality and slavery/white supremacy. Let us be inspired by that great cloud of witnesses who have spoken up and acted up for equality. And, let us find our place in that powerful parade.
Nibs Stroupe retired in 2017 after thirty-four years as pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, a church nationally known for its leadership in multicultural ministry. He is the author of many books, including his latest, co-written with Dr. Catherine Meeks, Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as Prophet for Our Time.