Hundreds of people gather at the 16th street "Black Lives Matter Plaza" near the White House in Washington DC to mark the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. Photo: AFP

Americans took to the streets of cities around the country on Friday to demand racial justice on a day heavy with symbolism – the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Marches and rallies were being held in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington against a backdrop of weeks of protests fueled by the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police.

In a stark illustration of the tensions roiling the nation, President Donald Trump issued a solemn White House statement commemorating Juneteenth, while also threatening protesters on Twitter ahead of his controversial rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday.

Juneteenth marks the day – June 19, 1865 – when a Union general arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed slaves that they were free – two months after the Civil War had ended and two-and-a-half years after president Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The date is generally celebrated with prayer services and family gatherings, but comes this year amid a national soul-searching over America’s legacy of racial injustice.

The United States has been gripped by daily “Black Lives Matter” protests since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man killed by a white police officer in Minnesota.

Several thousand demonstrators marched across New York’s Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan on Friday, chanting the names of black men and women killed by police in recent years.

“This year the entire country has had a reckoning,” said protester Tabatha Bernard, 38, voicing support for growing calls for Juneteenth to be declared a national holiday. “It’s up to us to keep this going until we have change.”

Protesters in Atlanta, where a police officer was charged with murder this week for shooting a black man in the back, marched on the Georgia State Capitol.

More gathered in Washington outside the Lincoln Memorial and near the White House, while thousands marched in Chicago and danced at festive rallies in South Los Angeles.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has a solid lead over Trump in the latest polls, said Juneteenth reminded Americans “that our country is capable of the worst violence and injustice but it also has an incredible capacity to be reborn anew.”

‘More unity’

In Tulsa– where Trump on Saturday is set to hold his first campaign rally since the coronavirus pandemic began – a Juneteenth celebration was attended by several thousand protesters.

“We’ve seen more unity and more blacks and whites together in the last three weeks than we’ve ever seen in a Trump rally,” civil rights activist Al Sharpton told a press conference.

Trump had originally scheduled his Tulsa appearance for Juneteenth, but was forced to change it amid a public outcry over his provocative choice of date and location.

The city’s Greenwood district was the site of one of the country’s worst racist massacres, in 1921, when as many as 300 black Americans were killed.

“We just want the world to know what happened here,” said Greenwood store owner Tony Williams, labelling Trump’s arrival “disrespectful.”

Meanwhile about a mile away, dozens of Trump followers have camped out for several nights ahead of the rally in order to get the best seats.

“This is a super important moment for all of us… we’re out here supporting Trump,” said Stephen Corley, 19.

‘A much different scene!’

Trump, who is facing a tough re-election battle in November and has adopted a hardline “law and order” stance towards protestors, and First Lady Melania Trump issued a joint statement to mark Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth reminds us of both the unimaginable injustice of slavery and the incomparable joy that must have attended emancipation,” it said.

“This Juneteenth, we commit, as one Nation, to live true to our highest ideals and to build always toward a freer, stronger country that values the dignity and boundless potential of all Americans.”

At the same time, Trump issued a blunt warning to counter-protesters headed to Tulsa.

“Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis,” he said. “It will be a much different scene!”

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum declared a curfew in the city amid fears of violence but Trump later announced it had been lifted for “our many supporters” attending the rally.

‘National anguish’

Pressure has mounted in Congress for Juneteenth to be declared a national holiday and Virginia, home to the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, is among the US states moving to make it an official holiday.

Several major US companies have announced they were making Juneteenth a paid holiday and Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX did so on Friday.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, said Juneteenth was being marked “during a moment of extraordinary national anguish, as we grieve for the hundreds of Black Americans killed by racial injustice and police brutality.”

“This Juneteenth must be a day of reflection that moves our nation to finally confront and combat its long and shameful history of systemic racial injustice targeted at communities of color.”