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Juneteenth: The struggle for Black emancipation continues

Two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Union troops finally made their way to Texas to end slavery in the last state still enslaving Black people. That was on June 19, 1865, Freedom Day or Juneteenth. This year, we commemorate Juneteenth, a national holiday,  against the backdrop of ongoing attacks on Black voting rights and the imminent overturn of Roe v Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nearly 50 years ago. Clearly, the struggle for emancipation isn’t over.

The legacy of slavery still plagues us. Our nation is built on stolen land and the forced labor of enslaved Black people. We have not strayed far from our shameful and immoral misogynist and white supremacist beginnings.

From slavery to the Jim Crow South, to today’s assaults on voting rights and reproductive rights, the history of oppression is constant through the present day — especially for Black women, who live at the intersection of voting rights and the denial of Black women’s bodily autonomy.

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett suggested that women could be forced to bear children because they could put them up for adoption, Black women were especially outraged because of our history with forced motherhood and state control over our bodies. Enslaved Black women were raped by white overseers and forced to bear children, only to have those children taken from them and sold into slavery. Imprisoned Black women have been coerced or forced to undergo sterilization. The entire field of gynecology is founded on forced experimentation on Black women patients victimized by a white medical system. Economically Poor Black women have been further victimized by social service systems that do not provide safe and adequate housing, food security or sufficient health care.

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Alito’s leaked decision cited concern for “unborn” Black babies as a reason to deny Black women our bodily autonomy, we were further enraged by the hypocrisy. In a country where Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from complications related to childbirth, and the Black infant mortality rate is more than twice as high as that for white infants,  it is abundantly clear that the concerns of right to life fanatics end at birth — especially if you are born Black. 

Opponents of legal abortion should know that banning abortion will endanger women and children. A study found that a nationwide abortion ban “would lead to a 21 percent increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33 percent increase among Black women.” Similarly, research shows that states with the greatest abortion restrictions have the highest rates of infant mortality.

The attacks on our agency as Black women and people are constant. The same court that is prepared to deny us our reproductive rights repeatedly and continually denies us our voting rights. And Congress fails to take action to protect us. Senate Republicans continue to block critical legislative protections for our hard-won constitutional voting rights. There is a clear, bold line connecting these modern-day opponents of equal voting rights for Black Americans to their historical racist counterparts of the Jim Crow era.

This Juneteenth, the struggle for Black emancipation continues as our most basic civil and human rights are under attack. While we celebrate the power and courage of our ancestors, we must take strength from them as we fight on for voting rights, agency over our bodies and recognition of our full personhood. We will not stop until the constitutional promise of justice and equality are fulfilled for all.

Marcela Howell is the founder and president of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. You can follow her work on Twitter at @BlackWomensRJ.

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