President Obama marks Juneteenth with call to ‘free modern-day slaves’

June 19, 2016 GMT

President Obama said Sunday that the Juneteenth commemoration of the post-Civil War freeing of slaves in Texas is a time for Americans to recommit themselves to the struggle for equal rights around the world.

Juneteenth is a time to recommit ourselves to the work that remains undone. We remember that even in the darkest hours, there is cause to hope for tomorrows light, Mr. Obama said in a statement.

Today, no matter our race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, we recommit ourselves to working to free modern-day slaves around the world and to honoring in our own time the efforts of those who fought so hard to steer our country truer to our highest ideals, he said.

Americas first black president issued the statement while vacationing with his family at Yosemite National Park in California.

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration marking the ending of slavery in the United States. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War was over and the slaves were free, nearly two and a half years after President Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation.

In his statement, Mr. Obama referenced a painting hanging outside the Oval Office that depicts the night of Dec. 31, 1862.

In it, African-American men, women, and children crowd around a single pocket watch, waiting for the clock to strike midnight and the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect. As the slaves huddle anxiously in the dimly lit room, we can sense how even two more minutes seems like an eternity to wait for ones freedom. But the slaves of Galveston, Texas, had to wait more than two years after Lincolns decree and two months after Appomattox to receive word that they were free at last, he said.

Today we commemorate the anniversary of that delayed but welcome news. Decades of collective action would follow as equality and justice for African-Americans advanced slowly, frustratingly, gradually, on our nations journey toward a more perfect union, he said.

On this Juneteenth, we remember that struggle as we reflect on how far weve come as a country, said Mr. Obama. The slaves of Galveston knew their freedom was only a first step, just as the bloodied foot soldiers who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge 100 years later knew they had to keep marching.