There have been some editorials in the Reformer of late debating the impact of words on racial justice, so I thought it would bear mentioning that we for the second time as a nation celebrated Juneteenth — a day when words changed lives. We as a nation now mark the day in 1865 that the words of the Emancipation Proclamation, which the U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued to free enslaved African Americans in secessionist states on January 1, 1863, arrived to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger informed the community of Galveston of Lincoln’s proclamation.
Though it was issued years prior, enslavers were held responsible for telling the enslaved they were free, and some ignored the directive. Maj. Gen. Gordon then demanded Galveston locals comply with the proclamation, that words be turned to action.
Of course, the end of enslavement did not bring about social justice or the end to racism but the word was out. We were reminded as a nation of what it means to live up to the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence which states “all men are created equal” and was a step toward ideas now codified in both the 13th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution which established racial and gender quality, rights are still being forged into practice in our society.
The power of words and acknowledgement of other delays and impediments to action are exemplified in our very own state of Vermont. Our Legislature has acknowledged that Vermont is the only state in the union that still has a constitutional provision permitting involuntary servitude to pay a debt, damage, fine, or cost. Currently there is legislation (Proposition 2) up for a vote in November which would add language to the Vermont Constitution that says, “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” Do these words matter? Forty nine other states say so.
The ballot measure would repeal language stating that persons could be held as servants, slaves, or apprentices with the person’s consent or “for the payments of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like,” and is important, not only for people of color but for all of us who seek equal pay for equal work.
A second effort by Vermont Declaration of Inclusion (https://vtdeclarationofinclusion.org/) is being made in conjunction with the NAACP and Vermont Interfaith Action creating declarations of inclusion. Words to express compassion and justice are being labored over by towns and organizations all over Vermont. Most recently the Rotary Club and Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce have taken time to articulate the appreciation of diversity and rejection of racism which they believe will make them and Vermont stronger. Dummerston, Putney and Newfane have all worked alongside 51 other Vermont towns to draft words which need saying — words which will beget actions leading to healthy, thriving, just communities. Words are not enough but they do matter. I am sure the slaves in Galveston thought so too.