Protesters brought down Confederate statues as anti-racism rallies were held across the United States to mark the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the country.
Demonstrations were held in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington on Friday against a backdrop of weeks of protests fuelled 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 national soul-searching over America’s legacy of racial injustice.
The US 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.
Late on Friday, a statue of Confederate general Albert Pike was torn down by demonstrators in the capital and set on fire.
In North Carolina, demonstrators pulled down two statues of Confederate soldiers that were part of a larger obelisk near the state capitol in downtown Raleigh.
Earlier, several thousand demonstrators marched across New York’s Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, 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.
And protesters just toppled the Albert Pike statue in DC pic.twitter.com/gEzJm0OYjd
— Perry Stein (@PerryStein) June 20, 2020
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 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”.
In Tulsa, where Trump is set to hold his first campaign rally on Saturday 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.
Trump issued a blunt warning to 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 GT 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.