Juneteenth: A Landmark Moment, a Legacy of Labor Exploitations

On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, bringing the news that the Civil War had ended and that enslaved people were now free. This day, known as Juneteenth, marked the true end of slavery in the United States, coming two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth is more than a day of celebration; it is a moment of profound historical significance that underscores the enduring struggle for equality and justice in America that continues to this day. 

A. Philip Randolph, the renowned, pioneer and African American labor leader who organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and became a leading figure in the early civil rights movement, famously stated, “Freedom is never given; it is won.” His words resonate deeply with the spirit of Juneteenth, a day that symbolizes the victory over slavery and the ongoing fight for equality. 

Randolph’s advocacy for economic justice and workers’ rights is a testament to the interconnectedness of social and economic freedom—a principle that remains relevant in the context of Juneteenth. America’s history of slavery represents the ultimate exploitation of labor, where individuals were forced to work without compensation, under threat of violence and severe punishment. This exploitation laid the groundwork for systemic inequalities in labor practices that persisted long after slavery was formally abolished. 

Moreover, the institution of slavery devalued Black labor by associating it with forced, uncompensated work. This legacy continued into the post-emancipation era, where Black workers often were relegated to the lowest-paying and most hazardous jobs, perpetuating economic disparities.

As labor leaders, we must view Juneteenth as both a celebration of past victories and a reminder of the ongoing struggle for true equality and justice in America. The economic disparities rooted in slavery have had long-lasting effects, contributing to the racial wealth gap that persists today. These disparities undermine the principle of equal opportunity in the labor market, making it harder for Black workers to achieve economic mobility. The legacy of slavery has perpetuated systemic racism in employment practices, from hiring discrimination to wage differences. These issues continue to undermine the economic security and advancement of Black workers.

If Randolph were alive today, it seems likely he would agree that addressing the legacy of slavery is essential for achieving true economic justice. One could imagine Randolph would advocate for such policies as affirmative action, fair labor practices and comprehensive anti-discrimination laws to address systemic inequalities. 

Additionally, Randolph likely would emphasize the importance of building solidarity among all workers to combat the divisive legacy of slavery and urge labor to recognize the interconnected struggles of racial and economic justice. Finally, Randolph would likely join the call to educate workers about the history and legacy of slavery to foster a deeper understanding of the persistent, systemic challenges—which in turn would lead to mobilizing collective action to address these issues.

As educators, we must use Juneteenth as a call to action, urging people to remain vigilant and proactive in the fight for justice. We must advocate for policy changes, community organizing and continued advocacy to ensure the promises of freedom and equality are fully realized for all Americans.