Posted on June 22, 2021

Juneteenth and the Second American Revolution

Trevon Austin and Tom Mackaman, World Socialist Web Site, June 21, 2021


{snip} In a political climate obsessed with racial identity, the occasion of Juneteenth has been usurped to advance racialist interpretations of the holiday.

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie summed up the conceptions that are being promoted around Juneteenth in a column published one year ago, “Why Juneteenth matters.” According to Bouie, “It was black Americans who delivered on Lincoln’s promise of ‘a new birth of freedom.’” He writes, “Neither Abraham Lincoln nor the Republican Party freed the slaves… Who freed the slaves? The slaves freed the slaves.” Bouie’s article was aimed to buttress Nikole Hannah-Jones’ claim, made in her lead essay of the discredited 1619 Project, that black Americans “fought alone” in their struggle for emancipation and civil rights.

A more recent comment on the same theme came on Friday in the Atlantic, in an article by Daina Ramey Berry, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, titled “The truth about Black freedom.” Responding to the question, “What is the meaning of Juneteenth?” Berry answers by diminishing the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. She argues that “self-liberated” black people “continuously claimed their freedom, in every historical moment, always preceding and precipitating movements by governments, institutions, and corporations.”

The claim that the slaves “freed themselves” makes the history of the Civil War incomprehensible. If slaves were able to simply free themselves, why did they not do so in, say, 1750, rather than 1863–1865? Why was the Civil War necessary at all? Do Berry and Bouie believe the old “Lost Cause” myth that the Civil War was a mistaken struggle waged between “brothers,” to which slavery was only tangentially related? And, if the slaves freed themselves, why was it necessary for General Granger to enter Galveston with an army, some two months after Appomattox, to “deliver the news,” as Bouie absurdly puts it?

To claim that slaves freed themselves diminishes the horrors of the system of chattel slavery itself, which was upheld with a staggering level of violence. The abolition of this system required a civil war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, until, as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural Address, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

In reality, the defeat of the wealthiest and most powerful slaveholding class on the planet was inconceivable without the victory of Lincoln at the head of a political party that called for the destruction of human bondage. Lincoln’s victory, and the threat it posed to slavery, was indeed the reason why the southern states seceded, as was spelled out in their secession resolutions and the Confederate constitution. Even more crucially, the victory of the Union would have been inconceivable without mass support in the North, the endurance of the Union army, the resistance of slaves in the South, and even the opposition of slaveless whites to secession, as historian Victoria Bynum and others have shown. And it was Lincoln’s Proclamation, as Marx explained at the time, that gave the conflict a definite social revolutionary character.


Terrified of the explosion it is conjuring, the American ruling class fears the past nearly as much as the present. The essential purpose of the current campaign for the re-writing of American history is to replace the dynamics of class and class conflict—the slave system was, in the end, a system of labor exploitation—with a racial interpretation that does not permit “whites” to have been anything other than oppressors of “blacks.” In this “new narrative,” the role of Lincoln, along with white Union soldiers, must be diminished or written out.