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Detroit's Juneteenth event celebrates 'our time to act'

Detroit — Melody Harden felt it was especially important to commemorate Juneteenth this year by attending the city's celebration.

"With everything that's going on in the world, I wanted to support something that's positive here in Detroit," the 50-year-old Detroiter said Friday, standing on Woodward near the city's new "Power To The People" street mural.

"Not just for the Black race, but for all races because when people are treated equally and fairly, that's good for everyone."

That was a familiar refrain as people across the region and around the country marked Juneteenth, a holiday that long commemorated the emancipation of enslaved African Americans but that burst into the national conversation this year after widespread demonstrations against police brutality and racism.

In addition to the traditional cookouts and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation — the Civil War-era order that declared all slaves free in Confederate territory — Americans were marching, holding sit-ins or riding in car caravan protests.

The death of George Floyd, whose neck was pinned under a police officer's knee, and the subsequent unrest has led in Metro Detroit to see this year's Juneteenth as a pivotal point in seeking seismic change.

"The whole nation has been made aware that Black people aren’t free and we still suffer under the knee of white racism. And so that link between contemporary white racism and Jim Crow segregation and slavery is a straight line," said Ollie Johnson, professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Wayne State University.

"Even though we’ve made progress, we still have a lot of work to do. We still have a lot of struggle to become free, to become equal, to become respected as human beings in this society. So Juneteenth is an important affirmation of our humanity."

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, and it became effective the following Jan. 1. But it wasn’t enforced in many places until after the Civil War ended in April 1865. Word didn’t reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19 of that year, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas.

Most states and the District of Columbia now recognize Juneteenth, which is a blend of the words June and 19th, as a state holiday or day of recognition, like Flag Day. 

On Friday, four U.S. senators announced they will introduce legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. 

“On Juneteenth, we remember the millions who suffered, died and survived the crushing reality of slavery in America, and recommit ourselves to continuing in the fight for equal justice for all," U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, said in a statement.

The need to address community issues has led to initiatives coinciding with the celebrations.

The Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit on Friday announced the opening of its community intake program, allowing the group to represent Wayne County residents facing arrest. 

"Over 70% of NDS clients here in Wayne County are Black people and NDS bears witness to the racism and injustice they suffer in our courtrooms every day," officials said in a statement. "Early access to zealous representation is not a panacea for deep-seated racism, but can serve as a counterbalance in a legal system weighted against our Black clients."

This year's Juneteenth "is a call to action,” said Chantá Parker, managing director of NDS Detroit. 

This week, the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a proposal to combat anti-Black racism in policing that includes reducing and reinvesting parts of police department budgets into other resources benefiting minority communities.

"This is a time right now to call for robust reform," said Dawud Walid, CAIR Michigan's executive director.

In Detroit, Friday's rally, the city's second Juneteenth celebration, capped off a week of associated events. 

Harden said she used a couple of vacation hours from work to attend  with hundreds at the celebration, held about 30 yards from the mural in downtown Detroit's Spirit Plaza.

The celebration featured speeches by community leaders, including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan; Charity Dean, director of the city's Civil Rights, Inclusion, and Opportunity Department; Rochelle Riley, the city's director of arts and culture, and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

Duggan and some of the other speakers at the Juneteenth celebration had to shout over a small group of protesters who were calling for the government to defund the police.

The temperature was nearly 80 degrees in the plaza when the event started. There was a wide range of ages and races. Most people wore face masks to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Many in the crowd wore T-shirts that read Black Lives Matter and Juneteenth 1865.  

A libation or ritual pouring of blessed water performed by Seydi Sarr, founder and director of African Bureau for Immigration and Social Affairs, kicked off the celebration.

A rendition of the black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" performed by Victoria Cooksey, a member of the Detroit Youth Choir, followed.

And the new street mural, which stretches from Jefferson to Larned on Woodward's pavement, was officially unveiled. Its creator, award-winning artist Hubert Massey, was present and joined by many of the 20 Detroit students who were chosen to work with him on the project.

There were also African dancers and drummers, performers and refreshments.

"Today, we are going to celebrate Black lives, we're going to honor our ancestors," Dean said. "This is a Black city and we are excited to be Black in this city and make change."

She urged everyone in attendance to register to vote, if they haven't already, and fill out the U.S. Census forms. "Now is also our time to act," she said. "This is how we act."

Like Harden, George Doughton, 56, of Detroit said he was compelled to attend the celebration.

"My ancestors went through so much, slavery, fighting for civil rights and everything," he said. "It's really a celebration of them and their struggle. I'm really glad to see everyone out here."

Associated Press contributed.