Juneteenth and Rodney King

– L. Arthalia Cravin

 This year marks the 147th year since the Union General, Gordon Granger, and 2000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to declare freedom for Texas slaves. On June 19, 1865 Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3” which stated:

“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.”

What we now celebrate as Juneteenth, a combination of the word “June” and “nineteenth,” was also called Freedom Day and Emancipation Day. When General Order No. 3 was first read, there was instant celebration and it has continued with annual celebrations. Traditional Juneteenth celebrations have included public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and other public orations regarding the ongoing meaning of freedom. Many African American families have used Juneteenth as a teaching tool to transmit family ancestry information to the younger generation. Juneteenth has had meanings far beyond food, parades, and festivities, with calls for vigilance on the matter of race relations, economic opportunity, and equal justice.

The recent passing of Rodney King at the age of 47 should give us pause this Juneteenth to reflect on the true meaning of freedom in America. Rodney King, as much as any other American knew the real meaning of freedom. Last month King spoke about his new book, entitled, “The Riot Within.” During a round of public appearances King spoke about that night in March 1991 when he was pulled over by Los Angeles police officers. What he recalled was the fear he felt that he would be nearly beaten to death by the officers. The videotaping of the police beating showed officers beating King without mercy. Three surgeons operated on King for five hours following the beating. A three-month trial in 1992 produced a “not guilty” verdict against the police officers. What followed were the “Los Angeles riots” that resulted in scores of deaths and injuries and billions of dollars of property damage. On the third day of the violent reaction to the verdict it was Rodney King who emerged and uttered the tearful words: “People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along?”

Rodney King was found dead in a California swimming pool. No foul play is suspected. But we know that there was “foul play” involved in Rodney King’s short and turbulent life as a black man in America. There is ongoing “foul play” when black men continue to be profiled, arrested, and incarcerated at an alarming rate. There is “foul play” when laws such as Texas’ “burglary of a habitation” law is routinely used by Texas prosecutors against black defendants to get convictions leading to ridiculously long sentences up to 99 years. There is “foul play” when there seems to be a deliberate “pipeline to prison” for the average black male in America. Still King was able to admit during a CNN interview about his memoir ”The Riot Within,” that he had forgiven the officers because he too had been forgiven many times. He referred to what happened to him as “something bad happening in your own house,” referring to racial injustice in America.

The passing of Rodney King just days before Juneteenth 2012 should give us pause to reflect on continuing racial injustice in America, including the killing of Trayvon Martin and so many others at the hands of law enforcement or individuals who act as self-described law-enforcers. It should also cause black America to pause, reflect, and proclaim unto itself, “Can we all just get along” as a way of dealing with black on black crime. Rest in peace Rodney King.

Copyright 2012 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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