Bishop Andy C. Lewter Jr., of Hollywood Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral in Amityville, encouraged the crowd Monday at Suffolk County's celebration of Juneteenth — the federal holiday established last year recognizing the annual jubilee marking the end of slavery — to view it as more than a day for "barbecuing and partying," but rather "an opportunity to reflect and learn from our past."
Lewter, the keynote speaker at the event outside the county's H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, recalled that as a child growing up on Long Island, "I, like so many others, was miseducated about most things that took place in these United States."
When he was in fifth-grade at Park Avenue Elementary School in Amityville, Lewter said, a teacher "told me that the slaves were happy because they were fed and clothed." In junior high, he said, another teacher declared "that slavery was not the reason for the Civil War. Of course, I would discover later that those things they had told me, indeed, were not true."
County Executive Steve Bellone said in opening remarks: "We know June 19, 1865, was but one moment in the long struggle for emancipation. But Juneteenth is an opportunity for all Americans to reflect on the central role that slavery and the racism that sustained it has played in our history. Understanding that history is critical to our nation's future."
The two-hour program featured music: church hymns, gospel and R&B familiar to African American culture. The gathering of about 150 people was racially and ethnically diverse and included many elected officials, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, as well as community activists and civil rights leaders who saw performances by students and a gospel ensemble.
Historical exhibits about notable African Americans in Suffolk, displayed in the lobby of the Dennison Building, will remain until Friday, Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter told the crowd.
James said that while "undeniable progress" toward justice has been made, "May Juneteenth also be a reminder that the fight is far from over, as long as innocent senior citizens who shop at a supermarket in Buffalo are slaughtered as the result of the color of their skin."
In his speech, Lewter said the nation's "democracy is fragile." He drew parallels between the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection, where supporters of then-President Donald Trump tried to stop the certification of then-President-elect Joe Biden's victory, and the political unrest that led to the Civil War in 1861.
Turning to James, Lewter said: "I don't want to put anybody on the spot … but I think we have a right to really believe that in this country nobody is above the law. So I've been wrestling how to diplomatically and delicately raise the question, even to our Attorney General, how, after six years of what is apparently and obviously criminal behavior, when can we expect to see the president of the former administration measured for an orange jump suit?" referencing prison garb.
The crowd let out a roar of laughter and cheers.
James, who is investigating the Trump Organization, simply smiled.