U.S. marks end of slavery on Juneteenth

Moment of reckoning:People praying during a Juneteenth event in Georgia, U.S., on Friday.AFPJOE RAEDLE

Moment of reckoning:People praying during a Juneteenth event in Georgia, U.S., on Friday.AFPJOE RAEDLE  

A Union general had proclaimed this day in 1865 that all slaves were free

The United States marked the end of slavery by celebrating Juneteenth on Friday, with the annual unofficial holiday taking on renewed significance as millions of Americans confront the nation’s living legacy of racial injustice.

Demonstrations, prayers and cultural celebrations of food and music will enliven communities from New York to Los Angeles to honour the day in 1865 when a Union general proclaimed in Galveston, Texas that all slaves were free.

Virtual commemorations

Several commemorations have gone virtual to account for the COVID-19 pandemic, but many are going ahead as planned or with modifications such as social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines.

Early on Friday, several streets in downtown Washington were closed to traffic and there was a strong police presence in the new “Black Lives Matter” plaza near the White House, where protesters were to converge in the afternoon.

Some 155 years after the demise of the pro-slavery Confederacy, several tragedies have led the country into a reckoning on race. They have also energised a quest for equality among African Americans who decry how systemic racism and injustice have been allowed to fester in the world’s flagship democracy.

Forty-six-year-old African-American George Floyd was killed on May 25 when a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and ignored multiple pleas of “I can’t breathe.”

Taking to the streets

Video of the horrific incident triggered coast-to-coast protests against racial injustice and police brutality. Millions took to the streets under the “Black Lives Matter” banner.

As Americans grapple with their country’s legacy, Juneteenth has the potential to amplify calls for action and reform.

Pressure has mounted for Juneteenth to be declared a national holiday. New York and Virginia have moved to make it an official State holiday. The auto-racing series NASCAR banned Confederate flags at its events.

And in the U.S. Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the removal on Thursday of four portraits of 19th century lawmakers who served in the Confederacy.

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