For Juneteenth, the day commemorating news of liberation reaching the last enslaved people in America, Organizer Zayid Muhammad talked about the struggle for racial and social justice through the lens of history.

Zayid Muhammad, left, is pictured speaking at a demonstration for police accountability in 2020.

In observance of Juneteenth — the holiday commemorating the news of liberation reaching the last enslaved people in America, in Galveston, Texas, more than a year after the Emancipation Proclamation — Organizer Zayid Muhammad talked about the struggle for racial and social justice looking at our current moment through the lens of our history. 

Muhammad, a longtime activist and organizer, as well as a writer, poet, stage actor, and New York Panther, has been a leader in movements for social and racial justice in New Jersey and New York for more than 40 years. He has worked  with the ACLU-NJ for years as an organizer with Newark Communities for Accountable Policing and one of the founding leaders of New Jersey Communities for Accountable Policing. 

He'll be part of a Juneteenth March and Rally for Reparations, sponsored by People’s Organization for Progress and New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and we hope you’ll join him and the ACLU-NJ there on June 17 as 12 p.m. in Newark.

He spoke about the indelible presence of history in today’s social justice movements, the connection between Juneteenth and Independence Day, the growing multiracial support for reparations, the striking resemblance of today’s reactionary politics to the post-Reconstruction era, the power of multifaceted and multicultural movements, and much more. 

ACLU-NJ: What makes Juneteenth such an important observance? 

Zayid Muhammad: As a celebration, it is the only one of its kind to mark the end of slavery. Although it was originally particular to Texas’ history, it has become a day to celebrate liberation for African Americans nationally. 

It’s important to appreciate what Juneteenth is. On June 19, 1865, African slaves in Galveston, Texas, were informed by newly occupying union troops, in what is known as General Order No. 3, that they were free and entitled to “absolute equality.”

As the westernmost part of the Confederacy, that area had avoided occupation by Union troops and thus became a ‘reserve area for slaves’ of sorts, even after the Civil War ended. Even though President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came down on January 1, 1863, more than two years before Juneteenth, the slaveholding class of that area withheld that information from their slaves and proceeded as they always have.  

ACLU-NJ: Juneteenth is a deeply meaningful day to Black Americans. Can you talk a little about what it means personally? 

ZM: On a community level, many Black Americans see Juneteenth as an alternative to July 4. Frederick Douglass’ excoriating What to the American Slave is Your Fourth of July? speech, delivered before an audience of suffragettes on July 5, 1852, took apart the searing hypocrisy of celebrating July 4, 1776. 

Albeit the date July 4 stands as the bold dawn of Independence for these United States, the rest of the world saw a people thoroughly enslaved throughout our lands north and south. The freedom that Americans valorized on July 4 existed on the backs of our enslaved ancestors. So, for many Black people, Juneteenth rings true as the only day that authentically recognizes the ascension of liberty for our people. 

ACLU-NJ: How have people celebrated it as a day of liberation throughout the years? 

ZM: At the news of their freedom, Black people in 1865 Galveston celebrated in Jubilee fashion, Jubilee meaning a time to rejoice, which is expressed dancing, feasts, sermons, oratory, parades, and marches, and those traditions continue. 

At the same time, in celebrating our freedom from enslaved labor, it’s impossible to ignore the glaring absence of compensation from the U.S. government to try to atone for the crimes against humanity committed against African Americans for the entirety of the nation’s history.

Let us remember that struggle for reparations takes full organized and doctrinal shape in the 19th century, with the end of the Civil War, coming from another military edict: General Order No. 15, of General William Tecumseh Sherman, as he was blazing through South Carolina and Georgia. On January 16, 1865, that order decreed that the newly freed slaves be compensated with tracts of land confiscated from conquered Confederates. It was the closest that Black people have come to having a real opportunity to own some of the land their enslaved labor generated tremendous wealth for. That order was tragically revoked by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of President Lincoln before it had a chance to be implemented.

Reparations are not just compensation for wrongs done to a people, but a restoration of a people’s capacity to be self-determining, whether it be owning and developing land in the South, or owning viable property in urban settings. The oppression of African Americans, the terror they faced, has been tied inextricably to what they have been materially denied.

ACLU-NJ: In New Jersey, are reparations still an important part of commemorating Juneteenth?  

ZM: More than ever. On Juneteenth for the last several years, People’s Organization for Progress and New Jersey Institute for Social Justice have held a reparations march, tied directly to legislation to create a task force to study how New Jersey should administer reparations based on our history with slavery and its legacy. The Juneteenth rally and march to end reparations is happening again this year, on Friday, June 17, at 12 p.m. starting from the Lincoln Monument in Newark. 

New Jersey’s history, as the last Northern state to abolish slavery, exemplifies why Juneteenth is important not just for Texans to observe, or for African Americans, but for everyone in this country. All states before the Civil War were part of the machinery of chattel slavery, and all states since have played a part in perpetuating racial injustice. 

ACLU-NJ: Have you seen changes in the way people approach Juneteenth and the important issues of justice that it raises? 

ZM: In the last few years — and I would say this has a lot to do with the mass protest movements against police brutality, especially in response to the spectacle-killing of George Floyd — we have seen growing awareness among white people about what reparations stand for and recognition of a basic need for transformational policies.

The recently emerging support from white Americans for reparations was unheard of not long ago. After decades of organizing for racial justice, it has been an inspiring sign of what can happen. Just a short while ago, the state of California not only produced a Reparations Task Force, but released a 13-chapter, 500 page partial report concluding that reparations are due for African Americans - all driven from community and faith based multiracial discussions! Undoubtedly, the momentum and energy driving our efforts to pass New Jersey’s Reparations Task Force bill is a reflection of this multiracial support. 

ACLU-NJ: What other policy changes in addition to reparations are important for people to focus on to make positive changes in social justice? 

ZM: All of the key issues that we are working on together are incredibly important, and our working together to get them codified into law is incredibly important. From reproductive rights, to our voting rights, to housing justice, to the right of labor to organize, to achieving real police reform — all of these issues are important because they can become cornerstones for a very different kind of society, one where every person’s rights, dignity, and autonomy matter. 

What’s equally important is to approach these issues with urgency. This advocacy is taking place against the backdrop of the most racist, anti-democratic elements among white Americans violently pushing back against that and any other notion of social justice. 

At the same time, as we see growing support for reparations, and growth of that support across the segregated social railroad tracks of America’s great racial divide for the first time in our history, these discussions are taking place in a political environment that is dangerous to a lot of us. 

Those who seek restrictions on our rights are literally gearing up to undo a number of hugely important legal protections that many thought would never become undone like Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, an already gutted Voting Rights Act. 

These rights are all under attack and those attacks are increasingly more violent, especially since the January 6 uprising at the Capitol. It is all dangerously reminiscent of the violent overthrow of Reconstruction at the end of the 19th century and how that violence was all ultimately sanctioned by a backward conservative Supreme Court. 

ACLU-NJ: Knowing that we’re in such grave times, what can people do on Juneteenth to feel that their voice can make a difference? 

ZM: Dare to speak up and speak out for reparations and restorative justice, especially in educational settings and in the criminal justice context. 

Get involved. For example: Do not allow yourself to be bullied into not participating on your local board of education or speaking out at your municipality’s public meetings. Educate your children on the true history of this country. That is what this backwards element is especially afraid of: their children being educated out of their racism and their toxic age-old notions of white supremacy and privilege. 

As quiet as it might be kept, New Jersey has an educational tool to address that. It’s called the Amistad Commission, which is tasked with carrying out a law to mandate the inclusion and full infusion of African American history into the curricula of ALL public schools in New Jersey. Unfortunately, the bill had no enforcement provisions so its influence has been severely limited, but imagine if it was allowed to be truly implemented. The consciousness of young people in this state could be considerably different in a generation or so! 

ACLU-NJ: Talking about Juneteenth, and reflecting on the history of this country, it feels like each movement is another chapter in one longer story. Are there chapters between the original Juneteenth and today that you find especially helpful to think about at this moment in time? 

ZM: In every successful movement for justice, the pivotal element has been unity and solidarity. 

Marcus Garvey, who gave us the first mass pan-African movement, also issued the first petitioning of the international community to recognize the self-determination and human rights of Black people in the 1920s through the emerging League of Nations.

William Patterson, a civil rights and labor leader, and New Jersey legend Paul Robeson did so again on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress in 1951 when they presented a petition to the United Nations documenting the U.S. government’s genocide against the African American people.

Malcolm X pursued that work in a new postcolonial setting, seeking to unite Afro-descendants in the Western Hemisphere with what was then the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union. He also sought to place our national struggle in the broader global Afro-Latin-Asian solidarity movement known as the Non-Aligned Movement, in which newly independent nations, and nations still fighting for their liberation, would not allow themselves to be dominated by their former Western colonial masters nor by the former Soviet Union.

Malcolm X and Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panther Party, both believed in multiracial coalition-building with all oppressed peoples. The Black Panther Party’s call for a United Front Against Fascism in 1969 speaks hauntingly loud and clear to these dangerous neo-fascist moments that we see now! 

Dr. King’s notion of the Beloved Community, a vision of justice emphasizing inclusivity and peace, with the twin pillars of social and economic justice, also belongs in any real conversation of where we want to go with this society and with this world. 

ACLU-NJ: What can we do to foster the Beloved Community King described?

ZM: We need to create a movement so big and so beautiful in its vision and character and color that young people can dream again and imagine a world where this country can be made to abandon its obsession with extraction capitalism, privilege, guns, and empire, and instead use its ingenuity and amazing human resourcefulness to engender to green the global economy - to create an order based on the ecological balance and justice that the planet needs, in order to save the earth, and to heal humanity by making the cornerstones to real human development accessible to everyone: decent housing, education, an inclusive workforce, and good accessible health care and peace! Reparations in their fullest dimensions and, its grandchild, restorative justice, are key engines.

To be sure, the rest of the world wants to see America make that kind of turn because of its incredible capacity to promote democratic imagery and because of its vast natural and human resources.

I actually think that all of that may well emerge first from some brave resilient spaces in the southern hemisphere who are already going that way, and who are doing so with a whole lot less in resources to work with, but whose humanity and commitment to principle have them driving that kind of vehicle already. The global North can learn from the global South. And those who hold power have a responsibility to learn from the oppressed. 

Join us for the Juneteenth Reparations March and Rally in Newark on Friday, June 17, at 12 p.m. from the Seated Lincoln statue to Newark City Hall — and hear Zayid Muhammad and ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Karen Thompson talk about the continuing work for racial and social justice.