The Urgency of Juneteenth for Educators [Interview with Dr. James Forbes]

On June 19th, Riverside Church is holding a special Juneteenth event available to the public [RSVP here]. In addition to the celebration, the event will honor luminaries such as Harry and Gina Belafonte, Dr. Gail Christopher, Cristina Jiménez, and the #NeverAgain Youth Leaders. Below is an interview between me and Dr. James Forbes, senior minister at the world-famous Riverside Church in New York City. In the conversation, which was edited for brevity and clarity, he imparts wisdom on the importance of Juneteenth to students, educators, and the country. 

Vilson: How do you see Riverside Church in this current climate? What’s been your vision in terms of moving the church forward in terms of what’s happening in the world of our country?

Forbes: In the history of Riverside Church, there’s this constant call to be champions. It is in Riverside [Church’s] DNA to be the place of celebration of liberation. For an example, in the early days, when Mandela was freed from prison, it was Riverside Church that he chose, saying “This church has always stood with us in the midst of struggle.” When Dr. King got ready to give his speech in [1967], the clergy and laity concerned about the War in Vietnam chose Riverside. It was at Riverside that the speech was given a time to break silence in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says, “There comes a point in which silence becomes betrayal,” and he challenges our nation from that place. The Dalai Lama brought representatives from 12 different faith traditions to say “It is no longer appropriate for us to think that each of us is the only one giving the word of truth,” and so, he promoted an event where all of the major religions said, “We are united in God’s truth and the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you,” and so it is in the walls of Riverside Church to be the welcoming place for that which tends towards freedom and justice for all.

V: Wow, that’s excellent.

F: I might add that I was the first African-American pastor to lead the church and there were those who thought “That’s impossible!” But because it was Riverside, the ministers felt it necessary to say “We’ve been preaching justice and now that we got a chance to choose a pastor, we can’t let race get in the way.” Freedom and justice has always been in the DNA of that place!”

V: If a young student (editor’s note: I explained from Pre-K through 12th grade) asked you “What does Juneteenth mean to you,” what would you tell them?

F: Juneteenth is one of the most important, but almost forgotten, holidays in the United States of America. Juneteenth actually was the first celebration where all Americans were free. On July 4th, 1776, we were free from the crown and with the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, but that does not include black people. We were only three-fifths of a person according to the Constitution and it is true that even when the settlers came from Europe, from England, women didn’t have the vote. They weren’t free. Every so often, we discovered that every group that comes to America has to go through the same process where they are not granted full freedom: the Irish, the Italians, Jews, Catholics. They weren’t free, and clearly the Native Americans weren’t free. So, in 1865, on June the 19th, a general was dispatched to Galveston, TX to announce that although [January 1st] 1863 was the Emancipation Proclamation, only the slaves in the separated states were set free. The slaves in the North were not set free. It was not until two and a half years later that every person in the United States was free.

You ask me why Juneteenth is important?! Because it tells a very important truth: that there have always been people who tried to delay the freedom and justice of others, but, in spite of their efforts, with the help of the Good Lord and those who were actually abolitionists and those who really believed in justice, that finally, and of course, it was Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, finally, Juneteenth is the first day where all Americans were free! That is an extraordinary thing to remember! Remember that there are always those who delay justice but that justice finally breaks through, that freedom finally comes! So that’s why it’s a very special day for me.

It’s also special because it’s the time to celebrate the fact that not only were black folks free, the Latina/o population was free down in that southern border above Mexico, the fact that abolitionists, freedom-loving people, celebrated, no matter what their orientation or their ideology, the fact that Juneteenth is the first day we can celebrate that we are all free together. It’s the day where we rededicate ourselves to working, that all God’s children are free around the world, that justice is restored after the destabilization that we are experiencing during the color of crisis in our nation.

In New York, every ethnicity has its own day, but somebody said “We need a day where we can celebrate freedom and justice for all of us!” That would be Juneteenth! In Texas, there’s a big celebration, and there’s a commission in New York City for Juneteenth, and it’s celebrated sparsely here and there, but Juneteenth should be a day in which we celebrate with praise and legislated conversation and determination to set people free. It should be the day that clemency is granted to people not threatening to society. It should be a day when we actually symbolize becoming a post-racial society.

We’re not there yet, but Juneteenth is the day of anticipation where all God’s children should be free, and my determination started four years ago to help bring this great day out of the shadows and bring it to the forefront of America’s consciousness and let it begin to be developed as a great day of celebration of a post-racial society.

V: What do you envision as an educator’s role in the “Fierce Urgency for Justice” and the work moving forward?

F: The educator’s role is to be engaged in sophisticated pedagogy. By that I mean, a good educator knows that we will not respectably address racial bigotry and economic exploitation without looking at the ugly paths of efforts to deny and to delay such justice as we are thinking about. An educator knows the power of ugly example, the power of demonic delay, and the educator would like to have an agenda that does not gloss over the past but looks it squarely in the face to the extent that we tell the truth about the history of Juneteenth! Freedom-loving people all over the world would like to say “NO MORE, NO MORE, NO MORE!”

The educator knows that sometimes the best way to start people on the journey towards a progressive agenda of freedom and justice for all is to look out at the stormy past, over the bitter roads of which we have passed, to look at the example of folks who have made money long enough to cause them to deny human beings their fundamental rights. Educators will know that Juneteenth is one of those dates that dramatizes the horror of the past BUT it is, at the same time for an educator, a moment of exhilaration that freedom finally came! It is a moment in which both black and white can celebrate together, that we are headed to the promised land of freedom and justice for all! You can’t find a better, transformative symbolism than something that makes us look squarely in the face at the horrors of the past and causes us to drink from the fountains of freedom as we anticipate a new breath of freedom around the world.

Man, it should be an educator’s field day to have the students research.

  • “What was the delay about?”
  • “Why did this take so long?”
  • “Why did this not happen before?”
[Have students] research the different theories as to why the delay occurred and give different theories as to who fought to make this possible. [Have students] give different theories as to why Lincoln made this day possible, the different theories as to what the real reason was for the development of slavery, what the ideological reason was and what were the economic and political consequences that gave rise to the development out of slavery that gave rise to white supremacist ideology!

I mean, we should have a whole course in the curriculum in major universities entitled “Juneteenth: With and Where To?”

Educators will say it is not enough to engage in the dissemination of information, that transformation also requires celebration. That’s why we’re gonna celebrate it! People will discover that these kinds of celebrations can be cathartic. They actually can help people work through some of the delayed emotional entanglements with the evils of the past! People can come to an event like this and decide which side they want to be on in regards to current issues of immigration, police brutality, the dehumanization related to gentrification.

It is in the context of these wonderful celebrations that people get religion about being justly, that they can energize their commitments to serving just causes.

For more information, please go to the following website and, if you’re there, let’s celebrate.