Justice, Delayed

Dear Supporters,

Next week we celebrate Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day when federal troops began to make freedom a reality for enslaved people in Texas.

On June 19, 1865, federal troops in Galveston, Texas proclaimed that enslaved people in the Lone Star State had been freed by executive decree. Federal troops announced this more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation,which declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states like Texas “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

But the work of turning President Lincoln’s paper promise of freedom into a lived reality had only just begun. And that work largely fell to enslaved people. After Juneteenth, enslaved people still had to escape their enslavers’ plantations, usually without any assistance from federal troops. In other words, enslaved people in Texas still needed to emancipate themselvesTexas enslavers vigorously resisted freeing enslaved people after Juneteenth, in some cases threatening or murdering those they had enslaved.

Juneteenth reminds us that we must continually assess the gulf between our aspirations and our reality. And it teaches that paper promises and verbal commitments alone are not enough; we must take concrete action to realize justice and to build a humane society.

At Texas Defender Service, we strive to make the words in our Constitution more than just an empty promise. Earlier this month, our team presented evidence at a two-day hearing that our client has intellectual disability and is therefore exempt from execution under the Eighth Amendment. And our mitigation team is in the trenches in South Texas, working around the clock to protect our client who is facing capital charges in a jury trial. 

We have our work cut out for us. When it comes to mass incarceration and its impact on communities of color, the gap between our leaders’ spoken aspirations and reality persists to this day. 

In his bid for the presidency, Joe Biden committed to ending the federal death penalty and to incentivizing states to follow the federal government’s example. His administration even recognized that the death penalty disproportionately impacts people of color (a fact glaringly obvious in Texas, where four of the five people executed so far this year were Black or Latino). 

But in the age of mass incarceration, justice requires more than just aspirational words: it requires action that transforms the world. And so far, President Biden has not made his spoken aspirations a reality.

This Juneteenth, let us lean in to the work that remains unfinished and together strive to create a just and humane society.

With gratitude,

Burke Butler
Executive Director
Texas Defender Service