The Absence of Joy on Juneteenth

By Rev. Alvin Herring

Rarely does Juneteenth and Father’s Day align. But this precious year, they do. As we prepare to celebrate both holidays, I’d like to tell a story about my father, the grandson of Joseph, an enslaved African whose “freedom” was granted on June 19, 1865. As we know, freedom is conditional, and now– more than 150 years later– it is something we are still fighting for, including the freedom to vote. 

My father, Alvin Herring Jr., was born in 1924 in a small out-of-the-way town in south Alabama called Clayton. For decades, Clayton’s only claim to fame was its ugly racism, pinning my dad to hope and despair, making his trauma perpetual and hereditary. While he turned of voting age in 1938, he could not vote until 1964. My grandfather, Alvin Herring Sr. was a sharecropper, he was a slave to the land and was never able to vote. My grandfather was born to Joseph, who bore no last name because he was enslaved in Clayton – voting was surely only a dream for him. 

Hands that had touched my hands, hands that rocked my crib when I was a baby and caught my tears are hands raised by enslaved Africans. For generations, my family– like many Black families in this country– has fought so that not only would I have the right to vote, but I would be blessed to lead the most powerful grassroots, faith-based organization in this country. Still, after generation upon generation contending for the right to participate in this sacred American act equitably, the fight presses on.

Juneteenth may have marked the end of slavery, but it didn’t afford those previously in bondage the full breadth of that freedom– namely, the right to vote. Joseph could not vote and until 1964, Alvin Herring Sr. could not vote. The violence and discriminatory practices they and so many other Black Americans were subject to for attempting to access to this essential staple in our democracy put to view this truth; freedom is not free, and the right to vote costs us. It has cost us blood, sweat and an abundance of tears. My father, grandfather, and many other Black Americans of our past and present are testaments to this ongoing struggle. 

We have spent lifetimes organizing for the right to vote, and with consistent effort, we’ve born results. In 1964, our organizing earned us the Voting Rights Act. In 2021, we continued the mission to expand and protect fair, equal voting access for all by organizing for the introduction of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act– which currently sits before the Senate awaiting a vote. The passage of this Act is critical to combating widespread voter suppression laws plaguing our nation. I believe that with faith in God and organized action, our efforts and the efforts of our ancestors will never be in vain. When we lead our organizing with faith at the center, we can gain equitable access to the ballot box. When we engage in faith-first organizing, we can ensure our elders won’t have to wait in inhumane conditions to cast a ballot. When we organize through our faith, we create a brighter future for generations to come– one that includes joyful, unfettered freedom, a freedom not afforded to Joseph, Alvin Herring Jr or Alvin Herring Sr. 

What is freedom if it doesn’t include access to the ballot box? What is freedom if it is absent of joy? Psalms 30:5 reminds us that Joy comes in the morning. Joy will also come when we know the generations that follow us will have safe, equitable access to the ballot box. Until then, my colleagues and I at Faith in Action will honor our ancestors, all the Josephs in our lives and fight for our freedom, we’ll fight for our right to vote. 

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