We have made a national holiday to celebrate the freedom of slaves after the Civil War.

We have legislation on the Hill that could protect persons of color from cop violence, and make sure they get the right to vote.

We have had a discouraging history in this regard.

We have an opportunity to do better.

But the Las Vegas betting odds are that we are long on celebrations and short on doing anything to make persons of color equal.

From the start, our nation has never been able to fulfill the promise that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, asserting that “all men are created equal” with certain “inalienable rights” encompassing “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Did slaves have a right to life, to liberty, and could they possibly pursue “happiness”

We knew this was a lie when we wrote it.

Indeed, in his original draft of the declaration, Jefferson wrote condemning King George III for the slave trade.  

How could we criticize the King for what we did.

This charge was cut out of the final declaration.

Afterwards, when we wrote our Constitution, slaves were fractional persons, 3/5ths a person really, and only counted for the purpose of determining proportional representation in the new national congress of the United States.

No slave was given a vote to participate as a citizen.

It was gruesome how slaves came to North America.

Slaves were brought to the Americas shackled in iron, their arms and the legs forcibly restrain, with the iron cutting into their skin for the duration they sailed across the sea; we’re talking months.

One slave described the suffering this way – “the iron entered our souls.”

In Virginia in 1622, Virginia passed a law that the status of a child followed the status of the mother.  A daisy chain of slavery forever.

When Blacks revolted in Bacon’s Rebellion, laws were passed that enslaved persons of color for life.

In 1808 Congress prohibited the importation of slaves – because we were producing our own domestic slave trade – that is – the enslaved persons of color already in the country.

The demand for cotton grew and so did the demand to use more slaves.

In 1831, Nat Turner led a revolt with 70 enslaved and free black persons.  They went on a killing spree, ending with Turner’s hanging.

In 1850, Congress passed a fugitive slave law, requiring citizens to help capture fugitive slaves.

In 1862, Congress passed a Militia Act that allowed Lincoln to “employ [in the Armies of the North] as many persons of African descent” as were needed for the war.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation that “all persons held as slaves” in the states that had seceded would be forever free.

When issued, Frederick Douglas said he would not “ever forget the outbursts of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air …”

The Proclamation only applied, however, in those places under Confederate control.  During the war, the proclamation could have little effect.  It would be years before it could become real – and only if the Union Troops prevailed in the war.

Word that 250,000 enslaved persons were free did not reach the slaves in Texas until around June 19, 1865, after the civil war ended, when Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and told them so.  

Some slaveholders withheld this information from the slaves until after the harvest season.

June 19 became a day of celebration best known as Juneteenth.  First in Texas and then in other states.

Days ago, the congress and the President declared this day a national holiday.

In all the years of celebration of the freedom from slavery, persons of color were never free of the badges of slavery, constraints and biases that daily showed this nation refused to treat persons of color as equals.

There were Jim Crow laws that suppressed the right to vote.

The more things change the more they remain the same.

Persons of color did not enjoy equal protection under the law.

Education, the first rung up the ladder of success, was separate and different for persons of color; this was segregation.

There was a great shift, however, in what the law said in the 50s, and I got to know one young man who found his way to center stage – to make a difference.

He lived in a flat in New Jersey and attended the East Orange High School in 1932-1933; that was Robert L. Carter.

I met Bob many years later when he was a federal judge and I was a federal prosecutor.  

Bob wrote what it was like his High School in the 30s, “The swimming pool at that school was available to black students only at the close of school on alternate Fridays, by gender.  To protect the white children from contamination the blacks might have left in the pool, it was then drained, cleaned and refilled for the use of white students the following Monday.”

Bob thought that was not fair or right.  He had an inborne sense of what was fair and just.

He happened to read that the New Jersey Supreme Court said public school facilities had to be made available to white and black children.

He figured that must mean the pool at his High School.

So next class, Bob, rather shy otherwise, went with the whites at phys ed to use the pool, a teacher objected, but Bob remained steadfast citing the court decision.  It looked like he was going to be expelled.  But the teacher backed down.  There’s one great irony to Bob’s early advocacy..  Bob didn’t know how to swim, so he hung on the side of the pool – since he couldn’t swim.  No white student would get in the pool when he was there.  

The way the school handled the matter?  They didn’t desegregate the pool.  Rather than follow the law, they closed down the pool.

Bob ultimately studied at Columbia Law and went on to work with the NAACP for $3,000 a year for starters, but best of all, he argued Brown v. Board of Education, one of the cases in the series, challenging school segregation, before the Supreme Court.  

Bob argued that segregation was unconstitutional because separate was not equal.  

Bob later wrote that too many people in America held the view that “blacks should be content with half a loaf or even a quarter of a loaf of full equality.”  

With the Brown decision, Bob said, “Blacks were now equal to whites under law and did not have to rely on the good will of some white individual to reach that status.”  

The catch was that the Court stalled the remedy, stating that the enforcement of its decision over time would be “with all deliberate speed.”

Because the NAACP had succeeded at law, securing equal rights, where others had tried and failed, the NAACP came under attack by segregationists who sought to ruin the organization, and perhaps render the Brown decision a nullity by delaying it into complete and absolute obscurity, denying blacks equal protection of the law.

When, years later, they considered nominating Bob for a federal judgeship, one question asked, “Could you be fair to white people?”

In the fifties and sixties, it looked like we were going to fulfill our original promise, because persons of color won advances toward equality.

There was the civil rights act of 1957, and of 1964.

There was the voting rights act of 1965.

The show went dark with the assassinations in 1968 of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

A pall has hung over race relations ever since.

The Republicans made race a reason to vote against a candidate.

Most recently, we have come through a season in which law enforcement officers have been caught on audio and video tape literally choking suspects to death or shooting them in the back for alleged minor offenses.

We have had many legislatures impose electoral reform intended to dilute the voting power of persons of color, cutting back by state legislation what the constitution guaranteed to persons of color.

Sure, we have a national holiday, Juneteenth, celebrating freedom of slavery, and that’s important but aren’t our elected representatives getting off easily if that’s all they do, make a holiday?

What are we going to do to guarantee to persons of color freedom from racist cops and the right to vote?

We have legislation pending in the Senate to reform our racist system of criminal justice, and electoral reform the right to everyone to vote.

We have no business telling the world that we are back, or to criticize the human rights violations of other nation states until we can guarantee equality to all our citizens.

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