Juneteenth and the “Power of Power”

Two thousand Federal troops.
I keep coming back to that number.

That’s the number of Union soldiers that accompanied General Gordon Granger into Galveston on the day Juneteenth was proclaimed in 1865.

We White people barely understand Juneteenth to begin with, and what we do understand is often whitewashed.
Yes, General Granger read that proclamation on the streets of Galveston, Texas.
And, yes, that set off a celebration that is commemorated among African-Americans to this day.

juneteenthhistoryBut, my dear White Siblings, I would invite you and I to remember those two thousand un-named Federal troops. Granger wasn’t just standing there like some swashbuckling Lone Ranger. The law wasn’t magically enforced because of mystical power in the words themselves. The words were —by that day— quite old.

Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years before.
The Civil War had literally been over, more than two months before.

We White folks like to dismiss to this by saying “Well, news just didn’t travel very fast in those days.”

But there is credible evidence that in fact slave-holding Texans resisted freeing their slaves, perhaps believing the law didn’t apply to them. There are even accounts that suggest the Federal government willingly delayed the announcement to allow those slaveholders one final “season” of picking. Or that the original messenger was murdered on the way to Galveston.

It’s never been totally clear exactly WHY it took so long.

My point, dear White Siblings, is:

It doesn’t *matter* why it took so long. We White folks are once again asking the wrong questions and noticing the wrong details.

What it TOOK —what finally made the difference— were those two thousand Federal troops. It wasn’t until *they* showed up that the full freedom of African-Americans Texans was insured.

Dear White Siblings, we know so very little about our history as a nation. And we are only able to live in our denial and ignorance *because* of White privilege. So, let me push my point today a little further…

There is a very credible understanding of American history that says that the Union won the Civil War, but that the South has generally won a “guerrilla war” that has continued for 150 years since. I first came across this concept in a jaw-dropping 2014 essay by Doug Muder, titled: “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party.”

This is not a comfortable proposition to consider. Here are a few paragraphs from his essay.
Dear White Siblings, see if you don’t recognize your experience in these first sentences:

“In my high school history class, Reconstruction was a mysterious blank period between Lincoln’s assassination and Edison’s light bulb. Congress impeached Andrew Johnson for some reason, the transcontinental railroad got built, corruption scandals engulfed the Grant administration, and Custer lost at Little Big Horn. But none of it seemed to have much to do with present-day events.

And oh, those blacks Lincoln emancipated? Except for Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, they vanished like the Lost Tribes of Israel. They wouldn’t re-enter history until the 1950s, when for some reason they still weren’t free.”

Does that ring a bell?
Yep. That’s the history I was taught too.
I mean, when I was in school, we didn’t really talk at length about any of that stuff. It whizzed by us in the blink of an eye, with little context or discussion.

But! Somehow, we DID have time to watch the film version of “Gone With the Wind” in English class.
Not a joke. It’s such a long film, that my memory is it took several days for us to watch the whole thing.

What did THAT teach us White kids?

Need a refresher?
Check out the opening scroll of “Gone With The Wind,” and how it wistfully recalls a time of “Cavaliers,” “Knights,” and most disturbing of all, “Master and Slave.”

THIS is what I learned in school.

Doug Muder continues, and here is where he gets at the harder truths of America:

“Here’s what my teachers’ should have told me: “Reconstruction was the second phase of the Civil War. It lasted until 1877, when the Confederates won.”…..

…After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasional pitched battles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place.

By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.– the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws. Tens of thousands of them were still physically shackled and subject to being whipped, a story historian Douglas Blackmon told in his Pulitzer-winning Slavery By Another Name.

So Lincoln and Grant may have had their mission-accomplished moment, but ultimately the Confederates won. The real Civil War — the one that stretched from 1861 to 1877 — was the first war the United States lost….

…Black equality under the law was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But in the Confederate mind, no democratic process could legitimate such a change in the social order. It simply could not be allowed to stand, and it did not stand.

In the 20th century, the Confederate pattern of resistance was repeated against the Civil Rights movement. And though we like to claim that Martin Luther King won, in many ways he did not. School desegregation, for example, was never viewed as legitimate, and was resisted at every level.”

Within the past year, the ideas of this essay have been expanded upon in two important books by imminent historians: Heather Cox Richardson (“How The South Won the Civil War“) and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (“Stony The Road“). I urge we White people to read them.

White Supremacy desperately needs to be confronted and dismantled. But we White people seem to have a fantasy that if can be solved through law, the “changing of hearts,” or electing a Black president.

And, certainly, all these help. But White Supremacy is deeply embedded in our nation, no matter what we hope to believe. As Muder alludes to, almost 100 years after those two thousand soldiers disembarked into Galveston, another set of nationalized troops escorted African-American children into a Little Rock school.

Once again, the law —the proclamation— was not enough. And if you really look carefully, ever since those federalized troops fled the South in 1877 they have only showed up for People of Color in sporadic and shockingly rare moments.

In between Juneteenth and Little Rock, American history is filled with one hundred years of lynchings, Sundown Towns, the resegregated cities and schools, Confederate Monuments…and the so-called “Great Migration.” (Nope, it wasn’t just about economic opportunity…)

All of this, created and maintained by the combined force of laws (local, state, and federal) and the blind ignorance and complicity of far too much of White society.
So, I can’t speak for African-Americans. But, if I was them, events like Juneteenth and Little Rock would remind me that the promised equity for all Americans never comes *just* by the power of proclamation and law. It comes through the power of power too. History shows that those who had it, tend to use it. Those who don’t have it, tend to either get angry or give up. And too many of us White folks, just never pay attention either way.

Therefore, as we meditate on how how our nation might move forward on issues like Police Brutality and White Supremacy, it’s important for we White folks to really take a hard look at our racial history. White people, especially, desperately need some remedial education in the racial history of the post-Civil War America through the modern period. And once we have that –and time is of the essence, our ignorances have lasted too long already– we must commit ourselves to change “the power of power.”

Because we like to pretend that changes to law have always magically made everything “all better.”
Yes, law *has* changed.
And our racist grandparent’s generation is dying out…so racism is dying out, right?
Why can’t we leave this all behind us now?

The answer seems to be that disabling White Supremacy has also always taken two thousand Union troops.

For every new change of old law or hard heart, there is a new Dylan Roof.

Remember him? Yes, I’m meditating on him a lot this week, as we also remember the Mother Emanuel slaughter, just two days before Juneteenth in 2015.

Dylan Roof was a young White man, newly radicalized by the internet. And the Mother Emanuel Massacre was THE modern event that shook *me* to *my* core. It woke me up in a new way from a progressive slumber I’d allowed myself to fall into.

Dylan Roof taught me anew that racism doesn’t just “die out” because old people die out. It gets reborn among young White people. Which means that we never “move past it.” We are constantly called to confront White Supremacist ideals in every generation.

Maybe you didn’t see this truth until Charlottesville, and President who called those young White supremacists “very fine people.”
Maybe you didn’t see it until George Floyd, or one of the countless other unarmed People of Color murdered in modern times.
Maybe you didn’t see it until the President gassed protestors for a photo-op, in a week when violence seemed to wash across our nation.

Maybe you still don’t see it.

But, my dear White Siblings, on *this* Juneteenth, awake to the idea that there is a portion of White society that only understands the “power of power” itself.

Our African-American siblings are counting on us to engage in the current struggle too; not just to change laws, or “hearts and minds,” but to ensure that the power of our government —the power of power at all levels— truly and finally starts to represent all its citizens.

This is a promise still far too often still unfulfilled in America.
And, far too often in our history, only realized when 2,000 Union troops show up to make us White folks do what we should have already done.

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