“Celebrate and activate because we still got a lot of work to do.”
Those words spoken by longtime activist and University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Preston Love Jr. set the stage for Saturday’s inaugural Omaha Freedom Festival held on the grounds of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation in North Omaha.
Coming on Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday this week, the Freedom Festival served as both a celebration of the accomplishments of the Black community and a call to continue the fight to achieve true equality for all people in the U.S.
The event was organized by North Omaha residents Calvin Williams and Tim Anderson of the nonprofit Freedomtainment.
Williams, 51, said he came up with the vision about three years ago for a festival celebrating North Omaha’s culture while also bringing people of different races together in a park named after the iconic civil rights leader and Omaha native who was assassinated at age 39 in New York City.
Williams views the festival as a way to give back to a community he says has enriched him with love and support throughout his life.
“I’ve been rich so many times,” he said. “I just want to give back without asking people for anything. I want to educate the people around me and teach them economic development, homeownership and financial (security). I believe we can all do that through education, empowerment and entertainment.”
Amid a backdrop of live music, food and guided tours of the Malcolm X Foundation, the festival gave attendees a reason to celebrate a day that traces its roots back to June 19, 1865, when Union troops brought news of the Emancipation Proclamation to enslaved people in Texas. That came more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation.
Although the day has been celebrated by some Black Americans for decades, it only recently gained widespread recognition across the country.
“This is a big deal,” Sharon Beverly, 69, said of the newly minted holiday as she took in the festival along with 63-year-old Jane Newman, both of Omaha. “We weren’t educated on a lot of Black history information that is coming up just now. Juneteenth was nowhere to be found in our schoolbooks.”
Having grown up playing hockey, Anthony Ashby is used to standing out as a Black man in a sport overwhelmingly populated by White players.
“You know racism exists. But a lot of times it’s not really in your face,” the 32-year-old said. “When certain things happen, you can’t really be sure if it’s racism or if the person is just a jerk. That’s kind of the thing that always weighs in the back of your mind. … It makes you think twice perhaps more than other people who aren’t Black.”
Even though Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, Ashby said it’s important to keep pushing for progress.
That echoes the message Love has championed in his decades of activism. Although he’s happy that Juneteenth is now a holiday, he casts a wary eye toward Republicans who voted in favor of the holiday while they also support, or at least don’t actively oppose, legislation he said is designed to restrict voting access.
“It was somewhat of a legislative photo op as far as I’m concerned. We’ll still take the victory but … we need to not get caught up in celebrating with our enemy,” he said.