Today — June 19 — also known as Juneteenth — is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. A date that marks the day that General Gordon Granger marched his men west into Galveston and emancipated the last Negro slaves. But the struggle for freedom did not end with Lincoln’s pen, General Granger taking Galveston, or through Reconstruction.
Hip-hop represents those descendants, and joins them with the undocumented workers, and with all oppressed people, whether gay or straight, Muslim, Jew, Christian, agnostic or atheist.
A melting pot of the streets — hip-hop is a movement cultural in nature, artistic by choice, spiritual when it wants to be, political when it has to be, but always refined. And in our movement we walk with a swagger, because one does after you’ve been beaten, whipped, and spat on for so long. The harder your life, the harder you get.
Hip-hop is the firepower for the 21st century civil rights struggle. We are the boots on the ground for the struggle, and in case you weren’t paying attention, we’ve been marching for some time now. The Hip Hop Caucus works towards ending urban poverty for the next generation, and organizing young people to be active in their urban communities.
Although this day bears particular importance for African-American communities around the country, it is a time of reflection for all Americans, no matter what color your skin is. Over the years, Juneteenth has become a day of solidarity in connection with other civil and human rights causes and movements.
Two years ago on Juneteenth, along with the ACLU and hip-hop group Dead Prez, the Hip Hop Caucus held the “Shut it Down, Stop the Torture” concert in D.C. A week later, on June 26 — International Day in Support of Torture Victims — we stood together with the ACLU and Amnesty International at Hip Hop for Habeas to demand the restoration of habeas corpus and an end to the systematic use of torture.
Unfortunately, not much has changed since that time. President Obama has stated his commitment to closing Guantánamo, but over 200 people remain locked up at Gitmo, most of whom never been charged with a crime. And although President Obama has also said that the U.S. does not torture, in order to fully move on, we must hold accountable the people who conceived of, crafted and approved the torture program in the first place.
Today is a sober celebration of the end of America’s worst crimes and most brutal tragedy. Yet for the crimes committed during our own generation there is no justice, no end in sight. The torture of today is the slavery of yesterday, simply an updated version of what happens when man devalues his fellow man.
There is no telling what future date in years to come will be set aside, to commemorate the end of torture in America’s name and the restoration of our rule of law. As long as a single innocent soul remains locked up in Guantánamo, and held there without the charge of a crime, then I will not back down. Nor will the hip-hop generation.
As this Dead Prez lyric so succinctly puts it, it is our past that inspires our action and our solidarity with the victims of torture:
“Yo, this world is oh so cold, I think about my ancestors
Being sold, and it make me wanna break the mold”
Today, the Hip Hop Caucus is demanding accountability for the torture crimes that were committed in America’s name.
You see in our movement we walk with a swagger, and stand for something that sure isn’t torture. We stand for American law, even though it enslaved and then segregated our ancestors.
We stand for the system of American government in spite of the fact that for over 200 years that system did not stand for our history.
We urge this country to respect human rights and the basic dignity of all God’s children because we know all too well what can happen when it does not. That is what today is about. Let us shut Gitmo down, and bring the torturers to justice so that we may offer our children another date to celebrate.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. is the President of the Hip Hop Caucus. In 2004 he was the co-creator of the Vote Or Die! campaign with P. Diddy, and served as Russell Simmons’ Political and Grassroots Director. He was also the Executive Director of Hip Hop Voices a program of Voices for Working Families at AFL-CIO. Rev. Yearwood is a nationally recognized activist and community organizer, known in particular for organizing for justice in response to Hurricane Katrina and for his fierce opposition to the war in Iraq.