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Reflecting on Freedom: Honoring Juneteenth and Frederick Douglass' Legacy in 2024

Updated: Jun 13

"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour." - Frederick Douglass


Juneteenth, short for “June Nineteenth,” is a national holiday commemorating the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were finally informed of their freedom, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. This significant delay highlights the slow spread of emancipation across the country. On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass, a former enslaved person turned renowned abolitionist, delivered his powerful speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” in Rochester, New York, criticizing the nation's celebration of independence while millions were still enslaved. The Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of all enslaved people in Confederate states, was issued on January 1st, 1863. The abolition of slavery was later solidified with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6th, 1865.

These historic events make me ponder the state of freedom and liberation in our current society. At the intersection of theology, justice, and community, do we truly embody a spirit of freedom and liberation in our daily lives in 2024? Douglass delivered his profound speech during a critical time of soul-searching for the United States. At the time, his children were young, and the nation itself was young. Having escaped from slavery in September 1838, he embarked on a journey to create a world that would truly mean liberty and justice for all. Douglass courageously used his gift of oration to challenge his context, speaking truth to power and all who would listen. His message was eloquent and stern but simple at its core: freedom and justice are not merely ideals to be celebrated in word, but realities to be enacted in deed. He was calling a nation back to accountability. Unlike his other abolitionist colleagues, Douglass was a graduate of the harsh institution of oppression and slavery and personally knew how important it was for those still in bondage to be set free.

With the presidential election approaching, we must reflect on how far we have come and how far we still need to go to achieve true freedom and liberation for everyone. For me, this year’s election is less about the individual candidates and more about evaluating my own work. Both candidates have a history in the White House and have remained consistent in their political ideologies. A Pew Research Center survey from April 2024 shows that 64% of Americans believe the country's political leadership has become more polarized over the past decade, with little expectation of significant policy changes from either candidate. This sentiment is echoed by political analysts who suggest that the candidates' track records indicate a continuation of their established policies rather than substantial shifts. So, what can I change about my societal impact? The Bible encourages us to pray for those in office (1 Timothy 2:1-3) and to be anxious about nothing (Philippians 4:6). One of the best ways to curb overthinking is to take action and focus on what you can change. At Urban Reformers, one of our core values and strategies is proximate justice. This means starting first where we are planted, addressing local issues with focused energy rather than stretching ourselves too thin by prioritizing distant issues.

For Douglass, the disconnect between the celebration of freedom on the holiday and the immediate context surrounding him was stark. He wished for all people to be free from the bondage of slavery and for Black people to be considered full citizens under the law. As we face economic inequality, health disparities among different groups, and educational inequality as a nation, we must remember the sentiment of Frederick Douglass to maintain our constitutional fidelity and fight for freedom at home in our proximate context. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for Black families is $43,862 compared to $68,703 for White families. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black Americans have a life expectancy of 75.3 years, which is lower than the 78.9 years for White Americans. Additionally, the National Center for Education Statistics states that the high school graduation rate for Black students is 79%, compared to 89% for White students. I am not an advocate who only sees the brokenness. I understand the great work that goes into creating a land of equity and prosperity. I am an optimist and a believer in hope; I believe that through faithful witness and unity, the good of our nation can and will prevail. However, it starts with truth-telling and wrestling with our roots from the past in our communities that create the major trends.

Our nation struggles with having a true account of our history. With efforts to ban Black history books in certain states, an unwillingness to investigate reparations, and a congressional leadership that has only had 12 Black senators ever serve, we still have work to do in setting local policies, laws, and precedents that reckon with our nation's past failures. The failures of genocide against the indigenous kingdoms present at the colonial settlement of the U.S. and the transatlantic slave trade that killed millions overboard and enslaved millions more in the most inhumane holocaust this planet has ever seen is our history. Reservations, racial segregation, Jim Crow laws, and the mass criminalization of minority groups have plagued our country’s progress. Even our great song, "Land of the free and home of the brave" is an aspirational picture that was penned by a racist. We must continue to evaluate what is truly meant by freedom in the US.

Urban Reformers was founded in 2020 in Chicago by a core group of activists with a strong history in the church. Our mission was to prioritize justice and action, guided by the love ethic and principles from our faith foundation. Amid the social context of BLM protests and the traditional American Church struggling to find its voice, we aimed to be a bridge over troubled waters. In our second year of operation, our think tank quickly realized that the faith community itself struggled to decolonize its biases and approaches. Like many community organizers, we recognized that the community and its resources both needed to be reeducated, retrained, and redeemed from toxic charity and disparaging practices.

We developed robust programs to directly impact our communities in substantive ways. For example, we hosted free health clinics for youth and children on Saturdays in partnership with local hospitals, facilitated by young pediatric resident fellow doctors in underserved communities. We distributed boxes of healthy food and hosted nutrition cooking classes in food desert communities and under-resourced public schools. We also faithfully marched and protested against the local Cook County Juvenile Detention Facility. However, this organizing did not instantly bridge the gap between the issues on the streets, the community, and local faith families. To bring everyone together in true community, it required retraining the common language within our team of leaders and organizers and reeducating our community and trusted partners.

We launched our demands to better paint the beloved community we imagined our neighborhoods to embody. Listed in the sacred theses nailed on our website were goals such as decolonizing the local church and reimagining community policing, among others. In pitching our vision to partner organizations, I was surprised to encounter mental blockers and barriers to what I thought were simple concepts of a better community. One church refused to support our mission after the senior pastor requested a meeting because a church elder, who was also a police officer, did not approve of our stance on community policing. He associated our demand with the defunding movement and did not even request a conversation to clarify. I understood the need to support your fellow officers, however I could not understand the lack of desire to support improving how policing in broken communities is done. This incident of racial political profiling, without the intellectual hospitality and integrity to relearn and engage in the community, taught me a valuable lesson. The battle is always deeper than it appears due to an unwillingness to connect unity, gentleness, and love (Eph. 4:3).

As we reflect on the profound words of Frederick Douglass and the significance of Juneteenth, we must acknowledge both our progress and the ongoing struggles for true equality and justice. Why does our nation still struggle to close the disparity gaps left to us from systemic oppression? How can we challenge our nation and church leaders to connect the reality of liberation to everyone in our community? Are we moving towards a society of greater inequality, or will we evaluate and change course to better reflect the freedom holidays we celebrate? Justice for the enslaved on Juneteenth and the Fourth of July was delayed because words on a letter had to be enforced by action and federal unity. Our journey towards liberty for all is far from complete, and it requires continuous effort and dedication from each of us. Let us commit to truth-telling about our history, advocating for policies that address past and present injustices, and engaging in proximate justice—working diligently within our own communities to make a tangible impact. By doing so, we honor the legacy of those who fought for freedom and embody the spirit of hope and unity that can leadour nation toward a brighter future. Together, through faithful witness and determined action, we can build a land where liberty and justice are not mere ideals but lived realities for every individual.

Jonathan Reynolds

Founder of Urban Reformers, Georgia Chapter

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