The words "Freedom and Justice for All" have been recited by school children across America since they were written by Francis Bellamy in 1892. But to many children of color, those words just don't sound true.
As we celebrate June 10th in many states across the country, we need to figure out how these words apply to everyone in the United States, regardless of race, color, or national origin. On June 19, 1865, the Union Army finally announced the Abraham Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the remaining slaves in Texas. Lincoln's proclamation was actually issued on September 22, 1862, but it took nearly three years for the news to reach Texas.
But the end of slavery was not the beginning of freedom for black people in America. After slavery ended, blacks were subject to a number of Jim Crow laws. These laws were designed to prevent black people from achieving social, political, and economic success. These laws were reinforced by the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, in which the court ruled that separate but equal separation of blacks and whites was constitutional.
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Vintage illustration features a group of African Americans dancing in celebration for Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day.
Under Jim Crow's laws, African Americans were disenfranchised by racist gerrymandering, which diluted black votes in the districts, making it difficult for blacks to consolidate votes and elect specific candidates. Banks, real estate developers and other institutions also participated in the redlining of black quarters. In boroughs outlined in red, loans and other investments in those neighborhoods were considered risky, and therefore these color communities remained underfunded and underdeveloped.
Ultimately, the US Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in the landmark 1954 decision in Brown vs Board of Education. Ten years later, most of the remaining Jim Crow laws were abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a year later, in 1965, by the Voting Rights Act.
But the story doesn't end there. Even after the abolition of the Jim Crow Acts and even after groundbreaking laws were passed, the United States remained essentially a two-tier system of freedom and justice. What is left today is a criminal justice system in which black and brown men are incarcerated at rates that far exceed their white counterparts. Slavery officially ended over 150 years ago, and yet a disproportionately large number of blacks remain on income levels below the poverty line. And even if African Americans have tried to build wealth and pursue the American Dream, incidents like the Tulsa massacre in May 1921 and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 remind us that racism and discrimination are far from over are in the United States.
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Flood refugees stood in line and waited for food in a makeshift camp for African Americans. Forrest City, Arkansas, February 1937.
(Photo by © CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images)
Indeed, systemic or institutional racism permeates the very core of our social, political and economic systems. Although there are many on the political right that would deny the existence of systemic racism in the United States, this form of racism currently exists in all sectors of society including employment, housing, criminal justice, health care, education.
Color communities, for example, were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the higher rates of previous illnesses. One could easily argue that pre-existing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes are the direct result of a lack of healthy food sources and adequate health resources.
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Systemic racism also permeates law enforcement agencies in the United States. We only need to look at the shooting and killing of black men, women and children by police officers in recent years, including Eric Garner in New York City 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri 2014, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio 2014, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, Sandra Bland in Hempstead, Texas in 2015, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky in 2020, and of course the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020. And the list goes on.
(Photo by Megan Varner / Getty Images)
Systemic racism also permeates state lawmakers across the country. State legislatures were encouraged by the landmark Supreme Court decision of 2013 in the Shelby County v. Holder case, which reflected several important provisions of the 1965 Suffrage Act. This paved the way for state lawmakers to further undermine the right to vote and further disenfranchise blacks to vote.
Tighter identification requirements and other voter reforms in Florida, Texas, and Georgia have made voting much more difficult. In March 2021, for example, Georgia introduced stricter requirements for voter identification, restricted the distribution of food and water, and reduced the number of official ballot boxes. In a recent press conference, President Joe Biden said these attempts to restrict voting rights "made Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle."
One has to wonder if there will ever be freedom and justice for all in the United States. The first slave ship landed in Jamestown, Virginia in August 1619. Four hundred years later, people of color are still experiencing racism and inequality. We may never change some people's attitudes towards People of Color, but we can fight for freedom and justice by supporting voting laws like the For the People Act, also known as HR 1. And with the help of Attorney General Merrick Garland, who recently said the Justice Department will dramatically increase its focus on voter suppression, there is hope that one day there will indeed be freedom and justice for all.
Terri Austin is an attorney and legal analyst who has appeared on a number of networks including ABC News, CBS News, Court TV, Fox 11, Inside Edition, and Law and Crime. Previously, she was Associate Professor at USC, Annenberg School of Journalism. Prior to that, she held numerous roles including Chief Corporate Policy Officer at S&P Global, Chief Diversity Officer at AIG, Litigation Associate at Richards & O'Neil, and Assistant Counsel with the New York Legal Department. Ms. Austin holds a BA in Political Science from Grinnell College, a JD from Columbia University School of Law, and an MS degree from Columbia School of Journalism.
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