But that’s not where the story ends. While the Voting Rights Act was perhaps the most consequential legislation of the history, and opened the door for millions of black voters to finally cast their ballots, it was just another beginning of an often-disrupted conversation over who gets to be a full citizen of America. In the 1968 Juneteenth celebration that marked the final dissolution of the ill-fated Poor People’s Campaign, the recently widowed civil-rights activist and wife of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, expressed a deep frustration in the moment. “Perhaps racism can be traced to that dark period in our history when slavery became institutionalized for 244 years, and segregation was practiced for another hundred years,” Scott King told the crowd. “So, you see, the roots of racism are very deep in the psyche of the American white man. All forms of economic, political, social, educational, and religious exclusion of the black man from the mainstream of society can be attributed to racism.”
Like emancipation before it, the grant of voting rights triggered a strong backlash. While this backlash was certainly characterized by white-supremacist violence, it was just as often as not exercised in courtrooms, in PTA meetings, and in homeowners’ associations. The five decades of a white anti-civil-rights counterrevolution—and their resulting creation of the modern state of federal law enforcement—are well-documented, from the pernicious legacy of northern housing discrimination to multiple rounds of discriminatory voter-ID laws, which research suggests are motivated almost purely by white antipathy toward black exercise of the franchise.
With the Voting Rights Act defanged by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, with black wealth still close to nonexistent, with voter-ID laws ready to return to ballots, and with the federal government drawing back from its historical presence as a watchman over the boundaries of citizenship, the promise of Juneteenth is, simply, in dire straits. More than at any time in recent history, black voters believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, and virtually all of those who participated in a recent poll saw the racial situation in America as one of deterioration. Even as the White House states today that it celebrates Juneteenth by “defending the self-evident truth, boldly declared by our Founding Fathers, that all people are created equal,” by the numbers, this is a nadir.
Yet, Juneteenth spreads. The holiday grows and syncretizes the ways in which black Americans in communities celebrate freedom. It’s in the papers; it is impossible to ignore. The prevalence of the celebration and the current state of black citizenship might not be in conflict though. Jubilee has always been promoted the most when times are the hardest. Just as Juneteenth became proselytic during the Great Migrations in which millions fled persecution, and just as its most prominent national celebration came just months after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., so its fervor might be increasing when black voters feel their power is increasingly fragile.
Much of black American history is told in centennial terms. The civil-rights movement was sparked a century after the intransigence of enslaved people helped spark the Civil War. James Weldon Johnson stood roughly between the two ends of the era, facing an America that grasped back at one end even as is sped toward another. Fifty-three years after the Voting Rights Act, America currently stands in the middle of such a century. In which direction does it grasp now?