Ralph Ellison immortalized
"Juneteenth: A Novel," the annual celebration of the anniversary of
June 19, 1865, when the enslaved Africans in Texas were actually
emancipated, in his posthumous novel of the same name.
title refers to the date when Union General Gordon Grander rode
horseback into Galveston, Texas and announced to nearly 250,000
slaves that President Abraham Lincoln, with a stroke of a pen on the
Emancipation Proclamation, had declared them free on January 1, 1863
– more than two years earlier.
hearing the news, the reaction of the newly freed slaves wasn't
surprising: they dropped their plows and celebrated their freedom.
reality, however, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any
slaves, its terms were carefully limited to those areas under the
control of the Confederacy and thus beyond the reach of federal law.
it wasn't until 2 ½ years after the signing of the
Emancipation Proclamation, when a regiment of the Union military, led
by Granger, arrived in Texas with the news of slavery's end, and the
power to enforce the proclamation, that Lincoln's proclamation
finally made slaves free. This delay, Ellison said, is a "symbolic
acknowledgement that liberation is a never-ending task of self, group
Juneteenth is a vivid historical example that obtaining rights at law
does not necessarily confer rights that have actual force. It is for
this reason that Juneteenth celebrants are often conflicted.
one hand, Juneteenth marks the Republicans' critical recognition that
unless action was taken to safeguard the freedmen's status, Democrats
would force Blacks back into slavery, thereby sustaining the economic
dispute that led to Civil War. In recognition of the entrenched
white resistance to Black emancipation, the post-Civil War Congress
enacted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which
ended slavery, made former slaves citizens, and protected them from
future white supremacy by granting them the right to vote free of
the other hand, Juneteenth marks the time when the newly enfranchised
Black population in the South met massive resistance from whites.
Among other things, this resistance took the form of a century of
poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy requirements, and
struggle continued with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
and now many, but not all, barriers used to prevent Blacks from the
effective use of their votes are unconstitutional or illegal. One
vestige of slavery, however, endures: felon disfranchisement laws.
disfranchisement laws are state statutes that prohibit people with
felony convictions from voting. In an attempt to prevent newly-freed
Blacks from voting after the Civil War, many state legislators
tailored their felon disfranchisement laws to require the loss of
voting rights only for those offenses committed mostly by Blacks.
example, the 1890 Mississippi constitutional convention required
disfranchisement for such crimes as theft, burglary and receiving
money under false pretenses, but not for robbery or murder. These
intentionally discriminatory laws were guided by the belief that
Blacks engaged in crime were more likely to commit furtive offenses
than the more robust crimes committed by whites. Through the
convoluted "reasoning" of this provision, one would be
disfranchised for stealing a chicken, but not for killing the
chicken's owner. Many other states, from New York to Alabama, have
also intentionally and effectively utilized felon disfranchisement
laws to prevent Blacks and other racial minorities from voting.
surprisingly, felon disfranchisement statutes, as intended, have
served to disproportionately weaken the voting power of Black and
Latino communities. This disparate effect results largely from the
disproportionate enforcement of the "war on drugs" in Black
and Latino communities, which has expanded exponentially the class of
persons subject to disfranchisement.
with more than 2.3 million Americans incarcerated, the effects of our
nation's reliance on mass incarceration as a primary means of control
in the era of the "war on drugs" is more profound than
ever. As a result roughly 5 million Americans nationwide – an
overwhelming number of whom are Black and Latino – are
disfranchised. Nowhere are the effects of felon disfranchisement
more prominent than in the Black community, where more than 1.5
million Black males, or no less than 13 percent of the adult Black
population, are disfranchised.
felon disfranchisement phenomenon is most destructive in Black and
Latino neighborhoods because these communities are often
disproportionately plagued with numerous socioeconomic ills –
including concentrated poverty and substandard housing, healthcare
and education. As a result, people in these communities have even
less of an opportunity to effect positive change through the
only this, but felon disfranchisement laws also serve to discourage
eligible and future voters from exercising the learned behavior of
voting. In doing so, these laws create a culture of political
nonparticipation that erodes civic engagement and marginalizes the
votes and voices of community members who remain engaged, but who are
deprived of the collective power of the votes of disfranchised
relatives and neighbors.
common in the United States, felon disfranchisement statutes are not
a necessary feature of our participatory democracy. Indeed, Maine
and Vermont have no such statutes and permit all people with felony
convictions – including those both currently incarcerated and
formerly incarcerated – to vote. Some states restore voting
rights to formerly incarcerated persons once they have served their
entire prison sentence. But similar to the slaves in Texas, many
formerly incarcerated persons are not informed that their voting
rights have been restored, and although technically free to vote,
remain voteless. In other states, the difficulty of navigating one's
way through the impenetrable restoration process turns many eligible,
formerly incarcerated voters away.
more than a century after General Granger announced to the slaves in
Texas that they were free, and nearly 43 years after the passage of
the Voting Rights Act of 1965, increasing numbers of Blacks and
Latinos nationwide are losing their voting rights daily.
there are new frontiers for the expansion of civil rights, and old
battles that remain unfinished. Reform of felon disfranchisement
laws is long overdue.
remarked that "there've been a heap of Juneteenths gone by and
there'll be a heap more before we're free." 154 Juneteenth
anniversaries certainly constitutes a "heap." In the spirit
of Juneteenth's legacy, and in the interest of experiencing the
illusive freedom that Ellison referenced, it is time for the United
States to break down the walls that literally lock citizens out of
the political process so that next Juneteenth we can move one step
closer to truly celebrating freedom.