Rice recognizes Juneteenth with panel discussion of freedom fighters' speeches

Highlights include previous work toward emancipation, future democratic endeavors

Juneteenth panel discussion 2024

Rice University hosted a panel discussion June 14 titled “Juneteenth and Justice for All: Black Struggle, the Constitution and Democratic Futures.” It is part of a monthlong series of events recognizing the federal holiday and its place in history.

The panel was led by Alexander Byrd ’90, vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, for a discussion of how past freedom fighters such as Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Jordan conceived of emancipation and democratic futures as well as how the work of Juneteenth continues today.

“As we have done over the last four years, we have gathered to commemorate that moment,” Byrd said. “Juneteenth is a holiday that not only celebrates the past but also invites reflection on the future of American democracy and the struggle for justice.”

The panel consisted of Kenitra Brown ’07, president of the Association of Rice University Black Alumni and senior policy analyst at the Texas Indigent Defense Commission; Sherwin K. Bryant, director for Rice’s Center for African and African American Studies; Mary Ellen Curtin, associate professor of critical race, gender and culture studies at American University; Kimberly V. Jones ’19, assistant professor of Black diaspora in North America and African American history at the University of Denver; and Omar Syed, vice president and general counsel at Rice.

Focusing on three pieces of dynamic oration, the panel explored how past freedom fighters conceived of emancipation and democratic futures by looking at: Douglass’ “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”, Hamer’s testimony before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention and Jordan’s statement before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

The first question for the panelists inquired about what moments from Douglass, Hamer and Jordan’s remarks resonated most with them as another Juneteenth approaches.

“We’re all expected to be equal under the law … that individuals are entitled to the same rights and privileges as this country pretends to give us: life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” Brown said. “We’re entitled to access to these institutions that make up our country, without violence, without unnecessary barriers.

“The truth is that we are human beings. We deserve the right to access all of these things. We shouldn’t have to be exposed to unnecessary barriers to get there. On the other end, this justice is only accessible if it is equitable for the least of us, or for those who are the most persecuted to those of us who are most powerful,” she said.

Bryant added his perspective on the speeches by the three historic figures.

“I think Douglass, Hamer and Jordan are all in some ways reflecting upon what they expect of the law and what they think the law can or cannot do,” he said. “I think there’s a way in which their reflections harken back to slavery and colonial practices … slavery as a kind of legal practice in and of itself.

“Really, they began to point up both the claims: the absurdity of what America claims itself to be — the obvious illegality of white rule — and the enduring practices and conceits of racial governance. You see that running through Douglass right up through Jordan.”

Jones expressed her thoughts about the throughline between the freedom fighters and the evolving future of Juneteenth.

“When [Douglass] says, ‘We need the storm,’ that moment and those words really stuck with me when reading each piece from Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Jordan, and I found myself looking for their storm … how they engaged and interpreted bringing the storm … to bring change … to wreak havoc in some ways to the conditions of Black unfreedom,” Jones said.

“For me, that really did relate to what Juneteenth is: a celebration of the aftermath of the storm. Juneteenth is a moment to celebrate what the storm has wrought. That was the moment for me. We needed the storm, and [I find myself] thinking through these ways in which we still need the storm and still see that storm in our present.”

Curtin is a biographer of Jordan, the first Black woman to serve in the Texas Senate and the first Black woman from a southern state to serve in the United States House of Representatives. She shared her thoughts as she reflected on the speakers’ remarks.

“When I was thinking about this, I thought about how Juneteenth was an unofficial holiday for so long, and it was sought to commemorate the end of slavery,” Curtin said. “As that holiday spread over time, activists sought to make Juneteenth a national holiday for many years, but their campaign really lacked momentum until the George Floyd protests after his murder.

“We want to celebrate and commemorate the end of slavery, but Juneteenth’s ties to the national holidays and ties to George Floyd’s murder seem to take us full circle back to Douglass’ question: ‘What to the slave is the Fourth of July?’ You could ask: What does Juneteenth mean to you? Douglass says it is a day that reveals to him, more than any other day of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim.”

Byrd further engaged the panelists with a comment that the three orations all implicitly suggest and explicitly advocate for ways of celebrating and criticizing the United States’ democratic project. He asked what habits of robust civic life they saw in the freedom fighters’ approaches that are worth highlighting.

Curtain said, “The habit that I really saw was an engagement with possibility. Hamer, Jordan and Douglass all lived in excess of what the law was written to give them. They lived within a possibility, and they express that possibility for them in their speeches and in their writings. Douglass imagined to this world a Constitution that could be for him, and then Jordan is telling us that she lived in that world.

“In some ways, [Jordan] realized for him that possibility. I think the same is true for Hamer as well. The way that [Hamer] expressed this moment of pain, degradation and violence that she experienced in being incarcerated for trying to exercise the right to vote is realized ... I think that we need to maintain a hopefulness, because they wouldn’t be speaking to us from the past if they weren’t in some way hopeful for the future.”

Syed said much of what the three freedom fighters have left us with is the obligation to continue their search for justice.

“Barbara Jordan says, ‘Today, I’m an inquisitor,’ and that’s a habit and a responsibility to ask all the questions, not just take the received wisdom,” he said. “To be an inquisitor is not just to ask questions, but it’s to express skepticism, and it’s to seek further discovery, and it’s to question our way into things that are better and that more fully live out promises.

“The Declaration of Independence tells us it is self-evident that all men are created equal, but it says nothing about the circumstances into which people are born after that creation. We have a continued habit and responsibility to inquire.”

The celebration of Juneteenth continues with several more events involving Rice and community partners. For more information, see an announcement the university released to cover various ways to get involved.

For more information about Rice’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, visit the website here.

Juneteenth 2024
(Photos by Gustavo Raskosky)
Juneteenth 2024