Freedom and equal justice under the law requires constant struggleJesse Jackson Sr. / July 7, 2023
On Juneteenth 2023, the nation enjoyed the new national holiday celebrating the freedom of the slaves at the end of the Civil War. This week marks the 10-year anniversary of Shelby v. Holder and now the decision of the Supreme Court to eliminate affirmative action in college admissions. The juxtaposition is a stark reminder that the struggle for equal justice for all is ongoing. Each step forward is met with furious reaction; each reconstruction with concerted efforts to roll back the progress. And today, we are once more in the midst of that reaction.
June 19, 1865, was the day that U.S. Major General Gordon Granger declared that the Emancipation Proclamation, that went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, had freed all the slaves in Texas — an estimated 250,000. The proclamation, a wartime measure, was limited: it applied only to those states still in rebellion. Lincoln always gave precedence to the survival of the union over the question of slavery. With the proclamation, slaves in states that were not in rebellion — like Delaware and Kentucky — remained in bondage. And the news was slow to travel to distant slave states like Texas, even after the surrender of the Confederate armies under Gen. Robert E. Lee. The proclamation took hold only as U.S. troops extended their victory. It took the passage of the 13th Amendment to end slavery throughout the United States.
Needless to say, that profound reform was met with furious reaction. The plantation class in the southern states began a campaign of systematic violence to squelch Black freedom. The Ku Klux Klan, among others, spread the terror of lynching across the South. In the end, the federal government gave in. A political deal removed federal troops from the defeated Confederate states. A reactionary Supreme Court ratified “separate but equal” as constitutional. Segregation — legal apartheid — settled in across the South. Juneteenth marks not the triumph of equal justice, but a large step forward and the beginning of a new era of struggle.
One hundred years later, the civil rights movement rose up to demand equal justice. Blacks demanded the right to vote, and equal access to public accommodations. Finally, a Supreme Court ruled that segregation was a violation of the Constitution. With the leadership of Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, the Congress passed legislation guaranteeing equal rights and the right to vote. Schools were ordered to integrate; public institutions were required to take affirmative action to ensure equal access and equal rights.
Then 10 years ago, the Supreme Court in the Shelby case, in a decision made by a slim majority of conservative justices, gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. This was one piece of a fierce reaction to the progress made. The Republican Party, beginning with Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, grounded its revival on the politics of White resentment, abandoning its previous commitments to civil rights and voting rights. Today, Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination — compete to lead the reaction — what DeSantis now calls the “war on woke,” which has featured systematic efforts to suppress the vote, ban books, distort the teaching of history in public schools, and bring an end to affirmative action.
Once more a conservative majority on the Supreme Court has ruled on the next stage of the reaction — the responsibility of colleges to take affirmative action to ensure diversity in their student bodies. Having diverse student bodies — with students of different races, genders, religions, regions — is a self-evident benefit to education — and to the country. The claim is that this somehow destroys a “merit based” admissions process, but colleges all construct their student bodies, giving preference to alumni, to the wealthy, to the athletic, to those with special talents. It is preposterous to suggest that ensuring racial diversity is the one thing that discriminates against others.
What the freed slaves learned under segregation, what Blacks learned in the civil rights movement, what must be remembered today is that freedom and equal justice under the law requires constant struggle. The forces of privilege are always powerful. The reaction can always play on racial fears. We celebrate Juneteenth and Dr. King’s birthday as markers in that struggle, but not as the final victory. Another reaction is underway. To overcome it will require more education, more organizing, more struggle. We know from our history that progress is possible — but only if citizens of conscience are prepared to demand it.
Jesse L. Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition.