Slavery didn’t officially end in Texas until June 19, 1865, when approximately 250,000 ex-slaves heard the news from Major Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army.
The general cited General Orders, Number 3:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
At the time of the public declaration in Texas, the Confederate Capital in Richmond had fallen, and President Abraham Lincoln lay dead at the hand of an assassin’s revolver.
More so, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was quickly making its way to ratification.
However, the most significant truth lay in the reality that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, two-and-a-half years previously.
Ponder that reality for a moment. Slaves in Southern states, particularly in Texas, were legally free according to the laws of the United States but were unable to live freely based upon laws and cultures of Confederate states.
Imagine learning for two-and-a-half years, according to the United States, you were free but held captive and enslaved by a white culture unwilling to relinquish its authority and control over you.
How would you feel? How would you react? What would you do?
Freed slaves in the South did not have much time to enjoy their freedom because shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865, Black Codes were passed and enacted across the South.
These local laws ensured freed slaves would not be treated as equals to whites.
The legal system enshrined inequality. It suppressed voting rights, forced black citizens into indentured servitude just to work, controlled how they traveled and empowered a white ruling class to skirt child labor laws for the purpose of white economic advancement.
In conjunction with the Black Codes, former Confederate soldiers assumed roles in Southern law enforcement, making certain the newly established laws would be enacted.
In close association with the Black Codes, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan assured white Southerners that while the Civil War might be over, the fight for white supremacy and black oppression was still underway.
Again, place yourself in the position of black citizens. After a Civil War and federal intervention to free slaves, black citizens found themselves once again being treated unjustly by white citizens. The Black Codes quickly gave way to Jim Crow.
While the federal government considered black citizens free and equal under the law, white Southerners made certain local control superseded outside influence. Black citizens were told to mind their place, a place far beneath white superiority.
Beginning in the 1880s, Jim Crow ruled the South with an iron fist for almost a century.
Under the misguided and misnamed “separate but equal” terminology, black citizens were segregated from white meeting places and activities.
Voter suppression ran rampant, quelling the most basic right of a U.S. citizen and disempowering the black citizens.
Out of response to Jim Crow in the 1950s, the civil rights movement was born. Black leaders and citizens denounced the overt and systemic racism ingrained into the culture.
From South to North, black citizens were treated differently than white citizens. From education to income inequality, there was a distinct difference in the American experience between white and black citizens.
White citizens were given a vastly better opportunity to prosper than black citizens.
While great strides were made during the civil rights movement, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Acts of 1965, another movement at suppressing black citizens was already underway.
Under the guise of “law and order,” federal, state and local governments passed laws stiffening criminal penalties and prison sentencing.
From Republican to Democratic presidential administrations and congressional leadership, politicians and leaders felt compelled to fight crime at all costs.
Mass incarceration has increased by 700% in the United States since 1970 with 2.3 million people in jail or prison.
On par with history, those suffering the most under the banner of “law and order” are not white citizens but black and brown citizens.
While only making up 32% of the U.S. population, African Americans and Hispanics constitute 56% of all incarcerated people.
To put this another way, one out of every three black children born today can expect to go to prison, as can one of every six Latino children.
How does this compare to white children? One of 17 white children can expect incarceration.
Why is there such a significant climb in the prison population from 1970 to today? What led the country to adopt mass incarceration?
Let’s return to the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment that freed slaves after the Civil War contains a small but significant clause, used by systemic racism to enslave black and brown citizens.
The amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Did you catch the clause? It specifically states that slavery or involuntary servitude will not exist in the United States “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” demonstrates how this one clause has been used to introduce the mass incarceration of black and brown citizens, ushering in a new form of slavery.
This brings us full circle to June 19, 1865. Remember when I asked what it may have felt like to discover you had been freed two-and-a-half years ago but only discovering that reality after the Civil War? How frustrating? How infuriating?
Freedom without being free is still slavery.
Now, think about what it would have been like to hear those sweet words of emancipation and freedom. Those words must have rung the liberty bell within the hearts and minds of freed slaves.
However, those rings would quickly dissipate with the evil sounds of Black Codes and Jim Crow. Again, how frustrating? How infuriating? Freedom without being free is still slavery.
Marches for civil rights brought a new era for black citizens. History stood at the brink, as Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of standing on the mountaintop waiting to enter the Promised Land of equality.
After those first few steps toward the Promised Land, black citizens were met with redlining, mass incarceration and broad systemic racism that continued the history of the white suppression of black citizens.
Lord, how frustrating? How infuriating? Freedom without being free is still slavery.
Now, the marches continue. However, there is a difference in today’s song. Instead of singing, “We Shall Overcome,” we are hearing the chorus of the masses, “Black Lives Matter.”
Something special exists about the movement we are beholding, but we must never forget the voices currently calling for justice and equality today do so with the echoes of their ancestors in their ears. Freedom without being free is still slavery.
Maybe, just maybe, this time freedom can truly ring, and the echoes of black oppression can be replaced with the sweet sounds of justice, equality and liberty.
Freedom can only truly be freedom when justice and equality for all can be achieved.
CEO of Good Faith Media.