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Early Juneteenth Celebrations and the Civil Rights Movement

Early Juneteenth Celebrations

Early Juneteenth celebrations involved readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious ceremonies, singing, games and enjoying foods that revolved around pit barbeque, a cooking style based in long-standing tradition and building community.

Early observances also included a search for lost family members. Without easy access to public records and no unified communication system, simply confirming if a loved one was living or dead was arduous, if not impossible, for newly-freed African Americans living in the United States in the late 1800s. Because of the lasting effects of slavery, it is difficult for African-Americans with their ancestral roots in slavery to trace their genealogy to this day.

Losing Faith in the American Dream

Sadly, African Americans have faced many intentional setbacks over the years, particularly the “Jim Crow” laws enacted in the American south in the 1870s. The purpose of these laws was to enforce racial segregation and undo the economic and political gains that African Americans had made since the end of the Civil War. This served to severely disenfranchise African Americans, denying them many of the same rights and privileges enjoyed by white Americans.

Because of this, after decades of celebration in the face of adversity, Juneteenth largely ceased to be observed by World War II. Incredibly, it was the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the events that immediately followed his murder that are commonly credited for Juneteenth’s revival.

From Tragedy, Hope

When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, his vision for a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC had not yet been realized. This “revolution of values” was meant to bring attention and reform to the widespread poverty throughout the United States. To carry on King’s legacy and honor his slain friend, Ralph Abernathy, a co-organizer of the Campaign, lead the Poor People’s March in the summer of 1968 alongside Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow.

This march culminated in a Juneteenth celebration, arguably its biggest and most public observance in history up to that point. From there, buoyed by the Civil Rights Movement and carried by westward expansion, Juneteenth found a renewed energy, awareness, and importance that continues to grow today.

Learn more about Juneteenth’s present and future >