The Chippewa Valley’s 2020 Juneteenth event occurred virtually Friday. It included celebration but also sober remarks regarding work that still must occur to reach racial equity.
The event, organized by Uniting Bridges of Eau Claire, lasted from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and included many speakers and discussions. Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, shortly after winning the Civil War, Union soldiers announced in Galveston, Texas, that enslaved people were free across the country.
During one of the sections, Selika Ducksworth Lawton, president of Uniting Bridges and UW-Eau Claire history professor, discussed Black Codes with Anthony Milburn, history professor at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Black Codes were laws created shortly after the original Juneteenth to limit the rights of newly-freed African-Americans, most notably in southern states. The laws eventually moved the country toward ongoing mass incarceration, Ducksworth Lawton said.
“A lot of these attitudes that we’re talking about are still here,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “Instead of the Black Codes, now we have the War on Drugs.”
One Black Code made it so few African-Americans had the ability to own guns and defend themselves from white supremacists. Milburn said white America is particularly afraid of three images: a black man with a book, which “indicates a certain level of knowledge, and thus power;” a black man with a gun, because the firearm is an “equalizer;” and especially a black man with both a book and a gun.
The professors went on to discuss the history of veterans being singled out by law enforcement.
“African-American soldiers have been targets since day one,” Milburn said. “When I say day one, I’m going all the way back to the 1700s.”
Ducksworth Lawton said male veterans were seen as the most powerful people in a community, so if they were deliberately attacked by law enforcement, it meant no one was safe.
Milburn mentioned that groups of white people often attacked a black individual.
“It’s always been a mob mentality to make this happen,” Millburn said. “It doesn’t work any other way. There’s a whole lot of fear, a whole lot of dehumanization that’s required to make this kind of thing work.”
Milburn said white supremacy is threatened by people demanding change.
“The last thing you want (as a white supremacist) is a black man who’s going to stand up for himself and his community,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “If we’re equal, I’m not superior anymore … It’s a stripping of strength.”
Many people don’t want to discuss the topic because “growing up and changing is uncomfortable,” Milburn said, adding that the country’s awareness of its racial history must improve.
“Our foundation of knowledge is wet sand,” he said.
Michael Smith, Eau Claire field organizer for NextGen America, attended the event to support local residents and “lift the voice and experiences of black people in our community,” Smith said.
He said the end of slavery, at least in name, is something worthy of acclaim but does not receive enough attention in the country and education system.
Smith also said Juneteenth is a reminder that work remains in the fight against racism.
“There are still ways that black people are being enslaved, through the prison system, through various racist pursuits that still exist,” Smith said. “Especially in this moment, when it is still in the American consciousness, it’s important to come together to use this celebration to learn.”
The topic of racial inequity has been at the country’s forefront in recent weeks as demonstrations occurred in all 50 states in response to multiple officer-involved killings of African-Americans, including Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
Ducksworth Lawton said society often requires that black men and women put up with humiliating behavior from the police.
“We ask them to be calm with a gun pointed at them,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “We ask for this saintly behavior on the part of black people … and I don’t think we ever talk about the toll that takes, especially in terms of black men and their health, their self-esteem.”
Indeed, Milburn said being expected to always act perfectly is a heavy burden to carry, and one many people don’t comprehend.
“You can’t learn from (it) if you’re not willing to listen to the story of someone who’s told you,” Milburn said. “That’s part of the problem … I can’t help you learn what it means if you’re not willing to first, listen, and second, ask questions.”
Smith said an awareness of the continued traumas and ongoing struggle can help serve as a motivator for further action, such as voting for people who care about racial issues and holding them accountable while they are in office.
Regarding the history of policing, Ducksworth Lawton said a big difference today is that incidents are captured on cell phone video, so there is proof of what occurred, like in the case of George Floyd’s death.
Milburn said when a black male is shot and killed, the first question often asked is what type of person they were and what their criminal record was, which contributes to their dehumanization.
Like his father, Milburn is a longtime military veteran, and he said a law enforcement officer with a firearm feels scarier than a war zone.
“I’m a combat vet, and the only time I’ve ever been afraid of a gun is when there was a badge holding it,” Milburn said.
Smith said people should celebrate Juneteenth and racial progress that has happened, but they should not become complacent.
“Make sure that we learn the continued traumas, the continued struggle of black people in America,” Smith said. “We don’t just stop when protests are no longer in vogue.”