Retiring civil rights leader says Juneteenth shouldn’t be jubilant

The Rev. William J. Barber II, the human rights activist, delivered his last sermon as pastor of his North Carolina church Sunday, using the occasion to decry jubilance associated with the Juneteenth holiday.

“They want you jumping around and drinking,” he said. “That’s not what Juneteenth is.”

Barber, 59, has been transitioning to Yale Divinity School, where he is the founding director of its Center for Public Theology & Public Policy. 

He is retiring as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, for 30 years the professional base from which he launched the Poor People’s Campaign — A National Call for Moral Revival, a movement that highlights the mortality of poverty and seeks to elect leaders who prioritize economic justice. Its name is honors Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 program, the Poor People’s Campaign.

On Sunday, Barber called the federal holiday that takes place Monday “not really a day of celebration, but a day when the lie was undone.”

Some slaveowners in Confederate states disregarded President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In Texas, others willfully concealed the news of freedom after it was reasserted in Galveston by Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865. The holiday takes its name from that date. 

“It was a terrible day,” Barber said Sunday. “For it was a day folk found out they had been lied to. They got two extra years of bondage. When they found out, they were not happy. They decided that now we gotta fight, sure enough, for full citizenship.”

For the retiring pastor, Juneteenth, made a federal holiday every June 19 under legislation President Joe Biden signed in 2021, should be a day of inquiry and activism.

“Juneteenth should be the time that you really ask the question, ‘How much more will you fight for truth when people have lied to you and stolen from you?'” he said.

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