June 19, 2011

Juneteenth 2011

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Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I rise today in celebration of the 146th anniversary of Juneteenth, the oldest continually celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. This significant historical event is appropriately observed as an important part of American history. Though the Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863, many slaves did not find freedom until Union troops were able to reach the Southern States to enforce the order. Lincoln's order initially directed the Confederate States to end slavery, but allowed the States that remained in the Union during the Civil War to maintain the peculiar institution of slavery. It wasn't until December of 1865 that the 13th amendment marked the complete abolition of slavery in this country. Juneteenth was an important first step toward inclusion in the greater American dream.

It is a time of reflection, healing and an opportunity for our country to have meaningful discussions about our legacy of slavery and inequality and our ambitions for a more perfect Union.

With the breadth of technology we have today, it is difficult for many to conceive of a time where news traveled over days, months and even years depending on where the communication began and ended. The real-time dissemination of information via mobile phones, BlackBerries and Skype video chat makes it easy to forget a time when things moved at a much slower pace. In the 1860s horses were widely used for carrying mail, although parts of the country were building out railroads--with locomotives powered by steam traveling approximately 15 miles per hour.

On June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, TX, to deliver freedom to slaves still held in bondage. Because of the amorphous period between the Emancipation Proclamation and the official implementation of freedom for America's slaves, Juneteenth is celebrated not only on June 19, but the entire month of June, to represent the slow spread of freedom during the war. The culminating reading of General Order No. 3 on June 19 sparked spontaneous and jubilant celebration, and the spirit of that celebration has thrived in every African-American community from that day forward.

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While Juneteenth represents an import phase in our history, it does not represent the end of discrimination and prejudice. African Americans would continue to struggle to establish equality as citizens, in education, professional careers and socioeconomic status because of Jim Crow laws and other forms of insidious discrimination.

In marking this occasion, it is appropriate to reflect on what was responsible for its creation. Millions of Africans, kidnapped by traders or sold into bondage by warring African kings, were ripped from their ancestral homes and carried across the Atlantic Ocean under hellish conditions known as the Middle Passage. While estimates vary, it is likely that as many as 2.5 million Africans died before ever reaching the shores of the ``New World.''

No comfort found them upon their arrival, as they were treated as chattel and sold to merchants and farmers. Their daily lives included intense, back-breaking physical labor for long hours in poor conditions, with no hope of attaining freedom or economic advancement. Maryland was complicit in this bondage, and at one point in the late 16th century, slaves made up approximately a third of the State's population.

Maryland, however, helped to lead the abolitionist movement as well. The underground railroad, vital to the freedom of many slaves, ran through Maryland's Eastern Shore and Chesapeake Bay. Its operation relied on the kindness and secrecy of a vast network of often anonymous citizens, many who lived in Maryland, all equally dedicated to ferrying fleeing slaves to freedom in New York, Massachusetts, and Canada.

Indeed, determined slaves from Maryland would leave an indelible mark on our national landscape. Harriet Tubman, a slave from Dorchester County, MD, went on to guide her family as well as 300 other slaves over 19 trips into the South out of slavery and into the North. During her clandestine daring, she never lost a single ``passenger.''

Frederick Douglass, born in Talbot County, escaped northwards at age 20 and began a long life of fiercely advocating for racial equality not only in the United States but abroad as well. He established the hallmark arguments that abolitionists would echo for years to come, until Emancipation was finally proclaimed.

Emancipation was not the end of the struggle. Explicit laws and implicit associations would continue to create and sustain dire inequalities in the African-American community. Maryland passed 15 Jim Crow laws between 1870 and 1957, laws that would meaningfully segregate almost every area of public life, and would contribute to the man who would later argue the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, Thurgood Marshall, being denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School. Marshall would go on to become the first Black Supreme Court Justice, and would help to safeguard the rights and freedoms of all Americans, regardless of race.

This Juneteenth, we must recommit ourselves to fighting racial disparity and prejudice. As we look back at the legacy of Juneteenth, and how the slow spread of the news of freedom brought forward a new era in our country's history, we must recommit ourselves to the hard work of ensuring that equal representation, equal opportunity, and equal justice are spread everywhere as well. Though the progress and spread may be slow, it will reach every American if we continue to vigilantly demand equality to access to health care, equal treatment by financial institutions, equal educational opportunities, and adherence to the words of our forefathers that ``all men are created equal.''

We must continue to eliminate inequality so we can truly honor the spirit of Juneteenth.

(Senate - June 16, 2011)

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