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How Utah's Racial History Brings This Year's Juneteenth Celebration Into Focus

Photo of a large crowd of protesters in Salt Lake City
Kelsie Moore for KUER
Utahns have been protesting at Black Lives Matter rallies in downtown Salt Lake City against police brutality and racial injustice. The protests were stoked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Bernardo Palacios Carbajal.

Friday marks the fourth year that Utah has officially recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday. It dates back to 1865, when the last enslaved people were freed in Texas. African-Americans celebrate it as their Independence Day. But this year’s celebration comes as the nation and the state are gripped by protests against racial injustice and police brutality.

Since the end of May, protesters have taken to streets in Utah to call for change. From St. George to Salt Lake City and Ogden to Logan, people of all races have joined in events.

While protests were stoked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Utah has its own history with racial tensions and violence. 

Never Felt White Enough

Earl Burnett was born in Salt Lake City in 1962. His dad was Black and his mom White. 

“In my 58 years I’ve not ever felt accepted 100% in this state,” Burnett said. 

Even as a kid he felt pulled between his two identities.

“You never felt White enough for the Whites but the Blacks accepted you more,” he said. 

When Burnett was 8 years old, he had quite a few friends who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He remembers a Monday night, playing outside together when the other kids were called inside. He tried to follow, but a parent told him “you don’t belong here at this church.” So he went home sulking.

“What did he mean by I don't belong here, you know?” Burnett ponders. “And my father broke it down to ‘being you — because you're Black.’”

Racial Violence And Utah

Newspaper headline reads 'Woman Cites Franklin Racial Talk'.
Credit Salt Lake Tribune Archive
This headline was seen in a 1981 issue of the Salt Lake Tribune during the trail of Joseph Paul Franklin. He was an avowed racist who shot and killed two black men in Liberty Park.

While the Church and African-Americans have a complicated history, so too does the state itself. 

In 1980, Ted Fields and David Martin were shot and killed in Liberty Park in downtown Salt Lake City. 

“Two of my best friends in 1980 [were] gunned down by avowed racist Joseph Paul Franklin while jogging in Salt Lake City, Utah,” Burnett recalls. “900 South, 500 East. Right there on the corner of the park.”

During Franklin’s trial in 1981, a key witness testified Franklin told her he hated “dumb n***** apes.” He eventually got a life sentence. 

As protesters today chant “No justice, no peace” more than fifty years after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s — it’s not just for George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, killed by police in Louisville. It’s also for Bernardo Palacios Carbajal, who’s Mexican, and was shot and killed by police right here in Salt Lake City. 

Only about 1.4% of Utah’s population is African-American according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Activist Darlene McDonald has lived in the state for about 18 years. She said knowing that and seeing the number of protesters that have showed up is encouraging. 

Credit Salt Lake Tribune Archive
This headline comes from a story in 2000 in the Salt Lake Tribune about Black Utahns celebrating Juneteenth. It would be 16 years before the state officially recognized it as a state holiday.

“The thing that shocks me is a lot of those faces I've never seen before,” McDonald said. “This moment that we are living in right now feels different, even from a Utah perspective. We were outraged after Sandra Bland, we were outraged after Eric Garner and Mike Brown. But this feels very different.”

McDonald is talking about Black Americans who have died since 2014 at the hands of police. Bland in Texas, Garner in New York, and Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But while the nation was grappling with those events, Utah was dealing with its own police shooting that year.

Darrien Hunt was shot and killed by police in Saratoga Springs. Hunt was walking around with a fake samurai sword that was a part of his cosplay outfit. The autopsy showed he was shot six times from behind. 2014 put the Black Lives Matter movement on the map. 

Taking Up The Cause

Photo of a man holding a sign that reads 'no justice no peace'.
Credit Kelsie Moore for KUER
A man holds a 'No Justice, No Peace' sign at a recent rally in downtown Salt Lake City. Utahns gathered by the hundreds night after night to call for an end to police brutality and the unequal treatment of Black people in the state and across the country.

Burnett said that was the first time he really remembers seeing protests in his hometown. 

“Even then with the Rodney King incident there were no protests here,” he said. “I really didn't see any protests until I would say the last 10 years to be honest with you. And five years ago, I happened to participate in the protests that they did in downtown Salt Lake.”

None of the officers in any of those incidents, including Hunt’s, were charged. A petition to reopen Hunt’s case started this month and has since garnered more than 400,000 signatures. 

Burnett remembers protesting shortly after that and seeing young people take up the cause. Jeanetta Williams, president of Salt Lake’s NAACP branch, said she’s glad to see young people still participating in today’s protests, but she emphasized just marching isn’t enough.

“We want them to channel that energy to make sure that they have filled and completed the census reports out,” Williams said. “And then not only that, but to make sure that they are all registered and make sure that they vote in the elections.”

But the recent events won’t stop African Americans in Utah from celebrating Juneteenth — a day to look back at their plight and often pain. McDonald said especially now, people need to show up and be loud. 

“We need to let Utah know that this is how we feel in this moment,” McDonald said. “And if we can drown out the divisive voice in this country, then that is something we need to do to bring the focus back on Juneteenth and our Independence Day in this country and what it means.”

And McDonald said just because they are celebrating, it doesn’t mean the work is done. In fact, she said, they are just beginning. 

Ross Terrell is the managing editor at KUER.
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