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On This Juneteenth, the Oldest Known Celebration of the End of Slavery, We Celebrate the Legacy of Activist and Poet June Jordan

June 19, 2002

This is Democracy Now, And this is a Pacifica special: The State of the World 2002: War, Peace and Human Rights.

Today is Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. The holiday dates back to the last days of the civil war, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and slaves were free. The date was June 19,1865.

The news of freedom came to Galveston’s enslaved men and women more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Some say slaveholders deliberately withheld the news to maintain the labor force on the plantations. Others say federal troops delayed the news and waited to enforce Lincoln’s order so slave owners could reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest.

It was General Gordon Granger who finally delivered the news of freedom. Thousands flooded the streets of Galveston dancing and singing, where Granger read a statement aloud. The celebration of Juneteenth was born. The observance of June 19 has spread across the United States, and today over 150 cities in 30 states celebrate this Emancipation Day.

Today, the Pacifica network has dedicated the entire day of programming to a celebration of Juneteenth. And today on Democracy Now!, we are going to observe Juneteenth by paying tribute to a woman who lived her life as a call to freedom and a hymn for justice. She used poetry to emancipate, essays to educate, her voice to empower. She seemed to embrace each day as a June 19th, offering both a promise of democracy and vision of struggle.

I am talking about June Jordan, poet, activist, essayist, teacher. She died Friday at her home in Berkeley, California. She had been battling breast cancer for nearly a decade. She was 65 years old.

June Jordan is the most published African-American writer in history. She burst onto the literary and political scene in the late 1960s, on the wings of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Poetry for her was a political act, and she used it to shine a fierce light on racism, sexism, homophobia, apartheid, poverty, and US foreign policy. Author Toni Morrison once summed up her career as: "Forty years of tireless activism coupled with and fueled by flawless art."

Today we’ll be joined by some of June Jordan’s dearest friends and colleagues, including Alice Walker, Laura Flanders and Angela Davis. But let’s start with June Jordan’s own words, a poem June wrote over ten years ago about the Middle East. It could have been written yesterday. It is called "Intifada."


  • June Jordan reads her poem "Intifada" poem, March 8, 1991


  • Alice Walker, African-American writer, poet and civil rights activist. She is author of many books and essays, including The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer prize. Some of her other works are "In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens," "The Temple of My Familiar," "Possessing the Secret of Joy," and "In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women."


  • Laura Flanders, host of Working Assets Radio, and author of "Real Majority, Media Minority; the Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting." Flanders was founding director of the Women’s Desk at the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. For more than ten years she produced and hosted "CounterSpin," FAIR’s weekly radio program. She’s been a senior correspondent for the Pacifica radio network, and News Director of the Pacifica Network News. June Jordan was a long time friend, colleague and mentor to her.



  • June Jordan, speaking out against the Persian Gulf War in Hayward, California on March 7, 1991, a week after the 26th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. This is a recording from Pacifica’s Peacewatch program.


  • Angela Davis, radical black activist, academic, and author of The House That Race Built (1998), Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender, and Race in U.S. Culture (1996), and Women, Culture, and Politics (1989) and Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974, reprinted 1988).


  • June Jordan reading her poem to rap artist Eminem, called "Owed to Eminem"


  • Alice Walker,


  • Laura Flanders,


  • Junichi Semitsu, Director, Poetry for the People, a program for the political and artistic empowerment of students at UC Berkeley. It was founded by June Jordan.


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