Juneteenth: Good News and the Road to Good Change

Habakkuk 2:3

Then the Lord answered me and said: For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.

 Last year the President declared June 19 a federal holiday for the whole nation, 42 years after Texas officially recognized June 19 as “Emancipation Day in Texas.” The first “emancipation day” in Texas was June 19, 1865, the day that the federal Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, was finally enforced there at the end of the Civil War. The war itself had officially ended just over two months before, with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. But news traveled slowly to the west, and the last civil war skirmish in Texas actually took place a month after Appomattox, on May 13, at Palmito Beach in South Texas.

Even then, the only way that some would agree to set their slaves free was the threat of force provided by the presence of the Union Army. And so it was a Union general, Gordon Granger, who, on June 19, 1865 officially read “General Order No.3” in Galveston:

“The people are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor: The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

News and change travel slowly, especially when people are asked to do what they do not want to do! Think, for example, of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who wasn’t exactly quick to set free his Hebrew slaves when Moses came knocking in about 1400 BC. Or think about South Africa and the length of time it took to end Apartheid after the outcry from the world began to rise in the middle of the last century. Here’s the timeline:

  • In 1950, Apartheid laws came into effect.
  • In 1960, the African National Congress (ANC) was banned.
  • In 1964, ANC leader Nelson Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island on charges of conspiracy and sabotage.
  • 26 years later, on February 11, 1990, the ANC and some other organizations were legalized, and Nelson Mandela was set free by South African President, F.W. DeClerk.

There is no doubt that pressures of all kinds played their part in this radical change for good in South Africa (like the presence of the Union army in Texas), and that without that pressure change may have been even slower or may never have happened at all. There is some evidence, though, that spiritual factors also came into play above and beyond the overt political pressure, and this also played its part in creating change. Here’s how the story goes…

On September 22, 1990, President DeClerk landed in Washington for talks with the Bush administration. He announced to the welcoming delegation that his first stop was the Lincoln Memorial – and gave the reason why:

”I am deeply aware of the historical importance of this visit. South Africa has embarked on a great journey… In a few moments, we will begin our visit to Washington at the Reflecting Pool. It is there where the reflections of the great monuments to Washington and Lincoln come together. And it was there that many thousands of Americans heard the Rev. Martin Luther King describe his dream for an America of justice and harmony through nonviolence.” (See: https://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/24/world/de-klerk-arrives-in-the-us-for-talks-with-bush.html)

Some were skeptical of his remarks and intent – having no assurance at that time that Mr. DeClerk would follow through with further reforms. But the “word on the street” at National Presbyterian Church was that a spiritual change in Mr. DeClerk was taking place.

Members of the South African embassy staff were attending National at that time, and had been greatly influenced by the preaching of our pastor, Dr. Louis Evans, on the issue of racial equality and Biblical reconciliation. Apparently, they asked Mr. DeClerk if he would attend worship at National the next day, September 23, 1990 – which he, his wife, and the ambassador did, presenting Dr. Evans with a Bible in Afrikans.

  • Three weeks later, on October 15, 1990, Apartheid was legally ended with the repeal of segregation – the 1953 “Reservation of Separate Amenities Act.”
  • In 1996 a new South African constitution was ratified.

I’m not sure we’ll ever know this side of heaven how all the bits and pieces of this story fit together, but that’s always true. All we know is that when we, like Dr. Evans, pray, and seek to play our part within the will of God, then, on God’s schedule, not ours, God sets to work in ways beyond our control, and, even in a world in which bad news seems to dominate, marvelous things can happen.

With prayers for us all in these tumultuous days,
Glad to be your pastor,

* Please click here to read the Session Statement on Race.