From Emancipation to Empowerment

Juneteenth's Enduring Connection to Voting Rights

By Lindsey Norward

Senior Staff Writer

Etched into history, Juneteenth traces its origins back to June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas when, a full two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army read General Order No. 3 that declared all slaves free. A new day full of promise and potential dawned as news of freedom finally reached enslaved Black people in the southernmost parts of the United States.

Juneteenth’s significance extends far beyond this single moment in history, however. The tradition of Juneteenth weaves a tapestry of struggle, resilience, and the unyielding pursuit of freedom. Rooted in the dark legacy of slavery and the grueling fight for emancipation, Juneteenth stands as a symbol of hope — and a reminder of the long, arduous journey toward racial justice and full equality in America. The day prompts us to examine our shared history, confront uncomfortable truths, and work collectively toward a more just, inclusive future — one that includes full political empowerment.  

A band at a Juneteenth celebration on June 19, 1900. (Source: Austin History Center)
Ben Haith poses for a portrait with a Juneteenth flag outside his home in Norwich, Connecticut on June 14, 2022. Haith created the flag over 20 years ago. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Juneteenth’s legacy and its lasting linkage to the fight for voting rights

Juneteenth stands as a poignant reminder of the profound interconnection between the struggle for racial equality and the fight for voting rights in the United States. This historic day, commemorating the promises of emancipation, undeniably honors the past. And it also recognizes the ongoing challenges, both past and present, faced by marginalized communities in their pursuit of full citizenship and political empowerment.

Even after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the subsequent ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which respectively abolished slavery, granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting, Black people in America continued to face systemic barriers and voter suppression tactics as they sought to exercise their rights.

Throughout the Reconstruction era from 1865-1877 and well into the 20th century, Black people confronted a series of discriminatory practices such as literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, and violent acts aimed at suppressing their political participation. Black codes, restrictive laws created to inhibit Black people’s freedom after slavery had ended, also placed limitations on their ability to own land, earn wages, and participate in the political process. These concerted efforts sought to undermine the hard-fought gains of freedom.

In the face of such adversity, Black communities rallied together, organizing voter registration drives, advocating for equal access to the ballot box, and demanding their constitutional rights. This community-based advocacy echoes that found in the earliest Juneteenth celebrations, during which organizers held political rallies and provided newly-freed individuals with information about their voting rights. In these shared moments was the recognition that freedom, long-deferred, would be an active fight. Juneteenth became a rallying cry — a symbol of resilience and determination — as Black people recognized that their liberation was intertwined with the right to shape their own destinies through meaningful political engagement.

A group of Black people raise their hands as they take an oath during a voter registration drive on June 18, 1966. (Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images)

"This community-based advocacy echoes that found in the earliest Juneteenth celebrations, during which organizers held political rallies and provided newly-freed individuals with information about their voting rights. In these shared moments was the recognition that freedom, long-deferred, would be an active fight. Juneteenth became a rallying cry — a symbol of resilience and determination — as Black people recognized that their liberation was intertwined with the right to shape their own destinies through meaningful political engagement."

From Shelby to Milligan : Advocating for voting rights in the pursuit of freedom today

The struggle for voting rights — and freedom — continues to this day. While landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 resulted in substantial progress, the fight against voter suppression remains an urgent concern. June 25, 2023 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Shelby County v. Holder decision which struck down a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act that guarded against the implementation of racially discriminatory voting measures. Moreover, additional ongoing challenges, like restrictive voter ID laws in many states and racially discriminatory redistricting processes, underscore the continued need to safeguard the fundamental right to vote for Black communities and other communities of color. While the recent Supreme Court decision in Allen v. Milligan rightfully reaffirmed the legitimacy of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in preventing states from diluting Black political power when drawing new maps in the redistricting process — in a historic win for LDF and for justice — this moment also served as an important reminder: That sustained work – among activists, litigators, community organizers, advocates, and more – is needed to protect Black voting rights.

Juneteenth serves as a call to action. It’s a call to preserve and advance Black political power, to dismantle systemic barriers that disproportionately affect marginalized communities, and to ensure that every voice is heard and every vote counts. Its profound significance reminds us that the fight for racial equality continues amid our pursuit of full, inclusive participation in our nation’s democracy.

Demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court on Feb. 27, 2013 when the Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder. (Photo by Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
LDF Deputy Director of Litigation Deuel Ross speaks in front of the Supreme Court after oral argument in Allen v. Milligan on Oct. 4, 2022. (photo by Allison Shelley for LDF)

Members of LDF’s Community Organizing team are deeply familiar with this fight. At this critical moment of commemoration and advocacy, they reflect on the significance of Juneteenth in the ongoing battle for voting rights.

Photo courtesy of Victor Dempsey

Victor Dempsey

Senior Community Organizer

“Voting rights are extremely relevant to Juneteenth, in recognizing the power of the freedom to vote. When the order was issued on June 19, 1865, folks didn’t necessarily understand their freedom in that moment. But Juneteenth symbolized the freedom of Black people in expressing themselves and making their voices heard. On Juneteenth, we want to celebrate Black culture, Black excellence, and our freedom.  As organizers, we have been supporting a lot of Juneteenth events so that its history and culture are persistent and withstand the test of time.

As community organizers, our broad focus lies in organizing communities, and much of our work is in voting rights. Voting rights efforts, like in the passage of the Connecticut Voting Rights Act, are infectious and are replicated through the efforts and collaboration of people on the ground. We always encourage folks to understand the power that they have in voting. The policies, legislation, and change we want to see start with a vote.”

Photo Courtesy of Candice Battiste

Candice Battiste

Campaign Strategist, Political Participation

“The Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, which substantially weakened the Voting Rights Act, has had profound consequences, emboldening a wave of voter suppression efforts that disproportionately target voters of color. Voting is not a privilege; it is a fundamental pillar of our democracy. Equitable access to the ballot box grants marginalized communities the power to influence policies and leadership that directly shape their lives and neighborhoods. By diluting and silencing the voices of minority voters, these restrictive measures undermine the very principles of liberation, equality, and justice that Juneteenth represents.

To truly honor Juneteenth’s legacy and advance the ongoing fight for freedom, we must steadfastly protect and expand voting rights, especially at the state level. LDF has worked diligently to advocate for the passage of state voting rights acts, including successful legislation in New York and Connecticut, and we will continue our efforts to ensure that every eligible voter has a fair and equal opportunity to participate in our democratic process.”

Photo Courtesy of Alejandra Granado

Alejandra Granado

Community Organizing Fellow

“Juneteenth is a day for us to gather and honor the ancestors that came before us. It commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. As we celebrate Juneteenth, it serves as a day for us to reflect as a community — because although Black people are no longer enslaved, we faced and continue to face oppression in this country.

In the present day, our communities are being attacked and we will not be truly free until formerly incarcerated people have voting rights, our LGBTQ+ communities are safe from harmful legislation, and our schools are not censoring our history by removing the little pieces of representation that we have. It’s more important than ever for those of us who have voting rights to be civically engaged and to use the power that we do have to shift power and resources to those who are still not free.”

A Juneteenth flag is raised during the Celebration of Juneteenth at the African American Civil War Memorial event on June 20, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Mirriam Midamba applauds a speaker during the Juneteenth Freedom March and Celebration on June 19, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Looking Ahead: Capturing the spirit of Juneteenth in the ongoing push for voting rights

In 2023, Juneteenth continues to provide a platform to connect communities, celebrate the history of the past and the potential of the future, and amplify Black voices in effecting real change. Its intricate, complex portrait of both trials and triumph serves as a reminder that the fundamental work to achieve justice and equality is far from over. By embracing the spirit of Juneteenth, we empower ourselves to challenge injustice, dismantle systemic barriers, and foster an inclusive society where Black people can live and thrive freely.

In the face of struggle and adversity, Juneteenth is a powerful testament to the unyielding spirit, triumph, and resilience of Black communities. It reminds us of the importance of honoring our history, celebrating progress, and actively working toward a society where freedom and equality are not just ideals, but realities. As we honor Juneteenth and continue to work to protect and advance Black political power, let us reflect, educate, and take action to ensure that in commemorating the past, we continue to light the path toward meaningful change forward.

Published June 16, 2023

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