The US Civil War was a revolutionary upheaval that crushed slavery and stoked hopes of a broader emancipation against the rule of property. We should draw on that memory today for struggles against racism and capitalism.
Dale Kretz is a former history professor and author of Administering Freedom: The State of Emancipation after the Freedmen’s Bureau (UNC Press, 2022). He works as a labor representative in Los Angeles.
In the days of the British slave trade, “commercial abolitionists” urged against the purchase of slave-made goods. This business-friendly approach counseled consumer abstention as a form of political advocacy — just like the “ethical capitalism” of today.
We shouldn’t allow the titanic revolution of the Civil War and Reconstruction to obscure a crucial fact: In the antebellum North, an interracial movement fought for, lost, and then kept fighting for black voting rights and equal citizenship rights.
Today, as we celebrate Juneteenth, we should remember not only the struggle against chattel slavery but the struggle for radical freedom during Reconstruction — snuffed out by the reactionary forces of property and white supremacy.
The “voice-giving” that is so central to the mission of liberal philanthropy underscores something essential about the custodial politics at the heart of the American political system. We need to do far more than “give voice to the voiceless” to win justice.