Juneteenth - Yohuru Williams

Juneteenth and a Moment of Reckoning

As the U.S. prepares to commemorate the federal holiday Juneteenth, which marks the date (June 19, 1865) when enslaved people in Texas learned they were free, the nation is at a moment of reckoning and we must make everyday commitments to justice, says Founding Director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas Dr. Yohuru Williams, a civil rights historian.

“We are at a moment of reckoning in so many areas so a lot of people think naturally about the issue of race, but the reality is we can talk about this with regard to the environment, with regard to gender,” Williams said in an interview with Soledad O’Brien. “It's almost as if the bill is coming due on some so much unfinished business of history that we haven't resolved.”

Watch Dr. Yohuru Williams' interview with Soledad O'Brien.

Pointing to the Civil War Reconstruction and the passage of the 19th Amendment, enfranchising women, Williams said moments like the one we’re all living through now are actually healthy in a participatory democracy and collectively confronting hate is critical to moving forward.

“I have hope,” Williams said. “I think Congressman John Lewis said it best: ‘If we're not hopeful, then we abdicate responsibility for what we can change, and we can all be forces for transformation.’

“The truth requires action. I think that there are those who are living in their Archie Bunker moment of what things were like 20 years ago when I didn't have to deal with these issues of LBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter, and then there are those who are saying we can't afford another backlash against these things,” Williams said. “We really have to tackle these issues if we're going to be not just competitive, but if we're going to thrive.”

According to Williams, the nation doesn’t need another Martin Luther King or Fannie Lou Hammer. Today’s reckoning, Williams said, has rightly adopted a leaderless model, saying it can be all too easy to write off an entire movement by exposing the flaws of one individual. He said everyday people have to push through discomfort and define what the future looks like.

“Americans always like a tragedy with a happy ending: this idea that we have a sitcom understanding of our history with everything to be wrapped up in 30 minutes, some piece of legislation or the election of some person is going to solve our problems,” Williams said. “The reality is it requires us to make everyday commitments for justice. It's hard work, and it means that we have to be invested at a level that we don't assume that any superman or superwoman is going to save our problems. We have to do that work every day.”