When the late congressman John Lewis was a college student, he decided to join the Freedom Riders in the summer of 1961. The Freedom Riders consisted of a diverse group of young people who took buses throughout the Deep South to challenge segregation in transportation, restaurants and other public places. Applicants were told to expect violence and that their very lives would be in danger.
Why, you might ask, would any young person sign up for such a thing? Lewis explained it on his application, simply and purposely: “At this time, human dignity is the most important thing in my life ... that justice and freedom will come to the Deep South.”
Freedom. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Riders this summer, as Pride Month continues and as Juneteenth approaches this weekend, I’ve been thinking:
What does it mean to be free?
When you think of the word, you might think of the day you can finally ditch your face mask and visit and socialize with no social distancing. Or you might picture someone dancing freely with no care in the world. Or maybe you think about how free children are when they’re loud and running and laughing with no concern for social norms.
But freedom has always been a weighted word for Black Americans. When Union soldiers descended on Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and informed the still-enslaved of the almost three-year-old Emancipation Proclamation, slavery effectively ended in the U.S. Black Americans were finally free.
But not really.
We know what followed next: Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings, numerous massacres of entire communities, white flight, mass incarcerations, police brutality. Some might ask, 136 years later, are we really free?
Are we free to take time away from our jobs to focus on our mental health, as tennis star Naomi Osaka did? Or are we supposed to remain stoic and strong at all times? Are we free to capitalize on this real estate boom by putting our house on the market, only to find out that it’s been appraised much less than our white neighbors? Are we free to expect the same care and attention to our health concerns as others? Or is our skin thicker and therefore, we don’t feel pain the same way? Are we free to see a police car behind us and not feel our hearts racing in fear?
Yes, freedom has always been a weighted word for Black Americans, but what I know for sure is that we take advantage of every slice we get. How else can we explain our numerous contributions to American culture, from politics to music to law to sports and, yes, to corporate America as evidenced by our own CEO, Roz Brewer?
Juneteenth, which is now a federal holiday, is a time to celebrate African Americans “making a way out of no way.” It’s a time to remember the remarkable things we’ve accomplished since 1865, despite every obstacle thrown our way.
At Walgreens Boots Alliance, we plan to celebrate by recognizing the impact of Black music on the world and how it has always been an outlet of hope for us. This week, we also explained the significance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and gave a nod to Black fraternities and sororities, fondly known as the “Divine Nine.”
We continue to celebrate Pride Month with stories and events about everything from parenthood to intersectionality. We remain at full throttle in our vaccine equity efforts in order to ensure Black and Brown communities have equal access to this lifesaving shot. We’ve expanded our health equity focus, working to address health disparities and improve health outcomes by bringing community-focused pharmacy and healthcare initiatives – including diabetes and pediatric asthma outreach and education – to underserved neighborhoods.
And although Juneteenth is a U.S. celebration, our commitment to equity is global. In the UK – which abolished slavery 32 years before the U.S. – we are proud to mark our 10th year as a founding partner of the national campaign “Ban the Box,” which pushes corporations to eliminate the box requiring ex-offenders to declare former incarcerations on job applications.
Those are just a few examples of why Juneteenth shouldn’t just be a Black holiday. By freeing the last of the enslaved, the Emancipation Proclamation also aimed to free everyone. Everyone should be free to be who they are, to share their talents, to explore the world free of limitations. We should all seize upon every opportunity we can, to snatch joy wherever we can as we work to be all together, but different.