by Leslie McGraw, PEG Digital Communications Director
This year was the first year in my lifetime that Juneteenth was a holiday observed by friends and family that were not of African descent. I, along with PEG, co-hosted Ann Arbor’s first VIRTUAL Juneteenth celebration along with the City of Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Branch of the NAACP. We took the celebration of the last emancipated Africans in 1865 and captured the narrative of community elders and tasked participants to reflect on the current weights on freedom for African Americans. Voter suppression was at the top of the list.
The celebration “coincidentally” was on Saturday, June 20, exactly 80 years after the police abduction, beating, and heinous murder of the first known voting rights activist killed in the line of duty, Elbert Williams. Mr. Williams was an officer of the local branch of the NAACP, which organized primarily to help residents in the area exercise their perceived right to vote. Initially, justice was sought locally and nationally, even reaching the US Supreme Court. When justice failed to prevail and terror continued, our family moved about the nation. My grandmother, Mr. Williams eldest niece, settled in Ann Arbor Michigan with her family. Residents in Haywood County, Tennessee would not begin to organize or vote until 1963.
A glimmer of justice shimmered upon the case when new energy was put behind it in 2015, 75 years later and in 2018 when the case reopened. Unfortunately, the case was reclosed this week. However, an unexpected “win” for voting rights and justice was discovered recently when Tennessee voting analysts noticed that Haywood County was overwhelmingly blue in a sea of red. Historians and analysts (and myself) think there might be a correlation with the dark past and conciliatory and healing efforts that have taken place in Haywood County in recent years.
Change only happens when people wanted something different. My Uncle Elbert was prescribed a life that he didn’t want to take “as is” so he fought for something different and better for himself and the people he loved. The residents in Haywood County have made a statement, through their votes, that they want something different for the future of Haywood County and America.