Bob’s Blog with Guest Tony Iton: Juneteenth: A Reminder About Reclaiming America’s Soul

It was in September 1862, that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation for enslaved persons residing in the ten states that were in rebellion against the Union. Despite that resounding Proclamation, millions of African Americans remained enslaved. It would be more than two and a half years later in April 1865 — when Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox — that the death knell for the brutal and racist Confederacy was sounded. Despite the obvious collapse of the Confederate rebellion, Texas remained a defiant holdout. In the final months of the Civil War over 150,000 enslaved people were trekked west into Texas where the Confederacy hoped to persevere. It was not until June 19, 1865, when the Union Army asserted control over Texas troops, that the over 250,000 enslaved African Americans in Texas learned of the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation on their freedom. Thus, was born the Juneteenth holiday.

Reflecting on that history and in light of our contentious modern-day political struggles over reparations, DEI, affirmative action, voting rights, Confederate monuments, and other vestigial emblems of white supremacy, one can’t help but wonder whether we Americans are capable of learning hard lessons. African Americans have always been at the vanguard of holding America accountable to the exalted values enshrined within the country’s founding documents. We have marched and fought and preached to move this country closer to its potential as a just multi-racial democracy where every child has the opportunity to develop his/her/their talents and contribute to solving the profound existential challenges facing our country and this planet. African Americans have moved with humility, grace, and forgiveness, and have endured tragic sacrifices to “perfect the Union.” But has America learned its lesson?

Juneteenth marks the anniversary of when America began to reclaim its soul. In California, reparations task forces have been established to examine the cold hard truth of California’s complicity in America’s racist and genocidal history. For instance, California’s Fugitive Slave Law which authorized slaveholders to use violent means to capture enslaved people who arrived in California was a rare policy among free states. California was complicit and the truth is glaringly obvious in our history, practices, and laws. We must stop looking away. Several reparations processes have been established to determine how to repair the collective injury that the state and some of its cities have exacted upon African Americans and Native Californians. The findings provide a clear-eyed and detailed examination of the persistent and traumatic impacts of neighborhood segregation and discrimination against African Americans in the state’s political, economic, legal, financial, educational, cultural, environmental, social, and health systems.

As a health foundation, on a daily basis, we see the real and enduring consequences of this cumulative discrimination on physical health and mental health status and elevated levels of toxic stress which culminate in shockingly disproportionate rates of infant and maternal mortality and stunning gaps in life expectancy. Facing this history is very painful, but we are finally confronting these hard truths in California. We are trying to learn from the deep sins of the past to move to the future with honesty, integrity, and accountability. We are committed to creating a “Beloved California,” a state where we all belong.

Juneteenth is our collective call to reclaim the soul of our state. We must remain committed to a path of equity and justice that moves us closer to an inclusive, multi-racial democracy that the 21st Century demands. President Biden made June 19th a federal holiday. We realize that there are many obstacles to our progress and many cynical and recalcitrant leaders and demagogues who would rather use fear, distraction, and opportunism to avoid confronting the truth of our history. Nevertheless…. let us begin.

Tony Iton                                 Bob Ross



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