In a speech in 1898 in memory of Abraham Lincoln Booker, T. Washington described a former enslaved man who described his life after emancipation as saying, “I have my second freedom.”
His first freedom, Washington explained, came with the end of slavery. His second freedom – the promise of relief from the peonies that followed emancipation – came at a price. It will take 20 years of “hard struggle” to get out of debt, pay for his 50 acres of land, build a home and educate his children. But it was a rare success story.
Too many Americans are still looking for their “second freedom.” The nation’s four million enslaved people quickly learned that physical freedom did not mean equal access to economic opportunities. “The law can abolish slavery,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America in 1835, “but only God can erase his traces.”
On June 19, 1865, the last enslaved Americans and their captors no longer became enslaved and enslaved, but employers and workers. With limited job choices, thousands began working for the largest employer of African Americans since slavery: Pullman Palace Car Co.
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In the 1960s, engineer George M. Pullman designed an extremely popular railroad car with a sleeper named after him. When he went to look for workers for the railroad, he looked for attentive servants who could take care of the whims of his wealthy passengers, work in appalling conditions, and offer few complaints.
Unpaid, overworked and forced to endure racism, Pullman’s porters were expected to work 400 hours a month. Pullman knew workers would be “cheap and paid almost nothing,” said historian Larry Ty, author of Getting off the rails: Pullman Porters and the creation of the black middle class.
“Lincoln freed the slaves,” was a common joke at the time, “and Pullman Co.” hire them. ” Coincidentally, it was Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s son, who became president of Pullman cars in 1897 and helped the company out of bankruptcy by cutting porters’ wages to near-starvation levels, forcing them to live on tips.
After the creation of the first black union and waves of intense negotiations with Pullman Co., conditions for porters improved in the late 1930s.
In the following decades, other efforts were made to improve the working lives of poor black people. In the 1950s, leaders of the civil rights movement would take advantage of the organizational tactics used by Pullman’s bearers in their efforts to end legalized segregation.
In 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King called on President John F. Kennedy to issue a “second proclamation of emancipation to free all Negroes from second-class citizenship.” After President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. which set up the Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities to Eliminate Discrimination, the agency was flooded with cases, two-thirds of which came from the south, most of them for racial discrimination.
Yet the long, grim history of marginal jobs for African Americans maintains a black unemployment rate consistently twice that of whites. This means that many of the descendants of the enslaved people have not yet found a secure economic basis in our society, which makes it the most important unfinished task of the Emancipation Proclamation. A Citi report for 2020 estimated that if the black-and-white stock gap had been closed two decades ago, it would have benefited the $ 16 trillion economy.
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Before he was assassinated in 1968, King planned a campaign for the poor in Washington, DC, where he would build a barracks for 2,000 people seeking economic justice, including wage-paying jobs. The campaign continued despite King’s death, and on June 16 of that year, an additional 50,000 people stormed Washington, D.C., for National Solidarity Day and in support of the campaign’s efforts.
“We will put the problems of the poor at the head of the government of the richest nation in human history,” King wrote in an essay in a magazine published shortly after his assassination. “If the government refuses to acknowledge its duty to the poor, it will not fulfill its promise to provide” life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness “to its citizens. If this society fails, I fear that we will soon learn that racism is a deadly disease.
Over the last few years, I have seen many defenders get tired, burned out and desperate about the amount of unfinished business. Juneteenth was developed by the wisdom of former enslaved people who understood how to deal with adversity. June 19 is a day to remember the successes. Like how, despite everything, Pullman’s porters have become a significant force, whose quiet innovative activism is helping to give birth to the modern civil rights movement. This is a day of celebration, despite the imperfect results, as a notice of emancipation that comes two years late. And it requires us to commit ourselves again to giving all Americans their second freedom.
Chad Dion Lassiter is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Human Relations. He was named Social Worker of the Year 2021 by the heads of the National Association of Social Workers in Pennsylvania.