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Virtual B-N Juneteenth Highlights Need for Systemic Change

An annual Juneteenth celebration was revitalized in Bloomington-Normal last year, and organizers of this year’s online event urged the nearly 100 people participating via Zoom to commit to making sure the event continues.

“We can’t stop and start. We need this to be woven into the fabric of McLean County,” declared Arlene Hosea, chair of the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project.

Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and brought news that slavery had been abolished more than two years earlier. It is the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.

Typically, Juneteenth events have a festive-like atmosphere and focus on history, family life and education, emphasizing black American culture. However, recent weeks have been marked by civil unrest locally and across the country since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by police as the world would learn via a video. An officer in Minnesota kneeled on Floyd's neck while he begged for his life. 

The backdrop of the protests and the emergence of calls for change were prominent during Saturday's virtual event.

The 90-minute program included a talk called, "From Then to Now" by Charles and Jeanne Morris, civil rights leaders and retired Illinois State University professors. The couple has received several awards, including recognition in 2017 as McLean County History Makers.

Initially, Charles Morris explained they were going to speak about the history of Juneteenth up to the present, but he said they’ve seen so much about Juneteenth in the last few days on national television. So, Morris said, he and his wife decided to refocus on systemic racism that is at the heart of demonstrations and public discourse today.

“It’s a condition which exists and thrives despite what some of our high officials say, and still thrives in America because it was established by white, male supremacists when the pilgrims arrived and systematically and brutally banished native Americans from their homeland," he said.

Morris explained white male supremacists, especially this year, have had a significant influence.

“They placed it (racism), built it, and baked it into virtually every aspect of American life,” he said.

He quoted Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines, an online news site, to help define systemic racism. “‘It is the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that hold in place the outcomes we see in our lives.’” Continuing to quote Harris, Morris said, “‘Systemic racism is naming the process of white supremacy.’”

Structural racism, Morris stressed, makes it more challenging for people of color to participate in society and the economy.  He said, “It cannot be reduced to individual prejudice or to a single function of a single institution.”

Morris offered evidence. For example, he cited data showing blacks make up half of the homeless population while they make up 13% to 14% of the general population. He blames redlining—a practice of denying African American or other minority groups equal access to housing through misinformation, denial of realty and financing services, and steering them away from certain neighborhoods because of their race. 

He said the longstanding and persistent racial wealth gap and housing insecurity prevents black families from amassing and maintaining wealth in the same way white families can. He cited the Federal Reserve’s 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances in pointing out the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family. 

Morris believes persistent stereotypes fuel institutional racism and interpersonal relationships. He added  it’s challenging to enact change when leaders such as Vice President Mike Pence and Larry Kudlow, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, refuse to acknowledge systematic racism exists. 

But Jeanne Morris is encouraged by what she sees happening today.

“The protests we see today resemble the characteristics of the Martin Luther King-led protests and marches and they are occurring throughout the country with the cry that racial injustice is a threat to all justice," she said. 

Jeanne Morris said she grew up in Charleston, S.C., where until just recently the old slave market was a popular tourist attraction. Her husband grew up in Virginia where the main economic opportunity was working in a coal mine. The two experienced school segregation, minimal health care and unemployment so they fled to Illinois “because like many other Southern blacks, we wanted more.”

But their travels to Illinois didn’t offer a welcoming refuge. In Normal, they struggled to find housing and fought rumors the NAACP brought the couple in to “run the neighborhood down.” In recalling that time, she asked, “How racist is that?” However, Morris said there were more families in the neighborhood supportive of open housing than those opposing it, and they were lucky to have support from equal opportunity advocates--both white and black. 

“How do we rise?,” Morris asked. “We rise because of meetings like this,” she said, adding she was so thankful to be able to participate in the Juneteenth event and vowed to continue to march with participants in the future. 

“We are honored to have walked with so many of you who have celebrated today. We are thankful for those assembled here today and would be honored to walk and celebrate with you and to sing, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

Bloomington-Normal went without a Juneteeth celebration for several years because of lack of funding and volunteers, but it resumed last year with a celebration at Miller Park, organized by the Black History Project and supported by organizations and individuals, including the 100 Black Men of Central Illinois and the NAACP of Bloomington-Normal.  

NAACP President Linda Foster reminded those on the call the way minorities can have more power and influence is through voting. “Our vote is our voice to the government,” she said. 

Foster said filling out the 2020 Census is as important. “When we fill it out, we’re saying we want to be involved in the funding of schools, hospitals, the funding of jobs. Don’t let us be undercounted this time,” she urged. 

The Black History Project’s Hosea also urged participants to volunteer, or to provide financial support for the ongoing effort to collect and preserve the stories of local black residents. “Voices need to be heard and we do that by capturing oral stories,” she reminded those on the call. 

“Independence Day for black Americans needs to be solidified and we need to make sure the Black History Project lives on forever.”

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