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150 Years After Emancipation, Dylann Roof Is A Chilling Reminder Of How Little Has Changed

06/19/2015 12:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

Today is the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, a holiday that now, more than ever, holds a special kind of significance.

Juneteenth, a combination of "June" and "nineteenth," commemorates the emancipation of black people from slavery in the United States. The holiday was first celebrated on June 19, 1865, after Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Orders, Number 3 to a crowd of onlookers Texas’s on Galveston Island.

It was two years after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation when the general and his troops brought the news to the isolated Galveston, where the last black were people still held in captivity, to inform them, "in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."

There had been other emancipation days throughout the United States since Lincoln's proclamation, but Juneteenth served as the culminating moment when all American slaves were finally given their freedom. For the first time in American history, black people were legally considered equal to white. They were legally afforded all the rights that their former slave owners enjoyed -- the right to marry, the right to own property, the right to assemble and worship.

Juneteenth is a day of celebration, but a day that this year holds a bittersweet quality as we're reminded of the ongoing racism that still plagues America. As details about the recent shooting in Charleston continue to trickle in, we continue to speculate about what -- other than hatred -- was going through the mind of 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof when he shot and killed nine worshipers at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. But the tragedy, while senseless, doesn't seem random, but instead incredibly calculated.

By now, you probably know some of the history of the church: the fact that its roots run back hundreds of years into America's past of slavery. You've probably heard the story of Denmark Vesey, a founder of the church who in 1822 organized what would allegedly been the largest slave revolt in American history, had it not been found out at the last minute by white slaveowners in Charleston. Vesey, a free man, was put to death along with several of his fellow church members and co-conspirators, and the church was later burned to the ground by local whites. The congregation then went underground after black churches were outlawed in Charleston -- a new building for the Emmanuel church was built in 1892, after the ban was raised.

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, told CNN hours after the massacre that it wasn't unusual for strangers to visit the church due to its historical legacy. The question, now: Was Dylann Roof aware of this legacy? Was he aware that the day of his attack, June 17, was the anniversary of Vesey's failed slave rebellion? And was he aware that it would fall just days before Juneteenth, a national celebration of the emancipation of slaves? Or was the timing of his act of terrorism a horrible coincidence?

At this point, it's impossible to know. But regardless of Roof's intentions and motivations, the implications of the massacre are profound. Juneteenth has always been a day of celebration, but today it is a day of remembrance. The nine worshipers who lost their lives -- Myra Thompson, 59; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Hon. Rev. Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Susie Jackson, 87; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; Clementa Pinckney, 41; -- were continuing a legacy that Denmark Vesey fought for, and fulfilling a human right that was lawfully acknowledged 150 years ago today.

Roof's disruption and violation of their sacred time of worship and their lives is an assertion of white fear and white entitlement. This Juneteenth, his actions throw into stark relief the very real legacy of racism in this country. We can celebrate -- and should be allowed to celebrate -- the universal freedom that was acknowledged on that day in 1865. But in light of Charleston, we are reminded that freedom continues to be challenged, tested, and denied -- even today.

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