richard_burton_1.gifJuneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States and the celebration of freedom for African Americans. On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, to inform inhabitants of the Civil War’s end two months earlier — two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

As part of this year’s Juneteenth activities, PROJECT R.E.A.C.H., INC. is asking faith-based, civil and human rights and community organizations and individuals to participate in a “Prayer, Reconciliation, Healing And Atonement Week,” June 16-22.

This campaign is intended to cast light on the criminal justice system, violence, gangs, criminal and juvenile justice, drug,s and their side-effects that continue to disproportionately enslave and decimate African Americans, Hispanics and the poor.

The aim is to bring African Americans and others from across the country on one accord, within their local churches and other worship centers to pray for atonement, brotherhood and family unity.

Thirty seven years after the enactment of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, there are more and more African Americans incarcerated or enslaved.

In light of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, prisons continue to warehouse thousands of non-violent inmates.

The Juneteenth celebrations can serve as a platform to advance the conversation surrounding the need for massive criminal and juvenile justice and prison reform, along with efforts at addressing the root causes of violence and crimes within African-American, Hispanic and at-risk communities.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 forever changed federal sentencing laws in this country and in 1988 these laws were toughened by adding conspiracy and gun enhancements to certain drug offenses. This dramatic congressional creation of mandatory minimum sentences causes judges to impose harsh and lengthy prison terms and prevents them from considering factors that would customarily reduce a defendant’s sentence.

These laws were designed to put away drug kingpins, but hit low street-level dealers and addicts disproportionately. Mandatory minimum sentences are high fixed terms of imprisonment that force judges to give offenders cruel and unusual punishment.

Since the enactment of these new modern-day slavery laws, a whole generation of African Americans and others are enslaved within the prison industrial complex in the name of the so-called “War on Drugs.” Young and old alike remain enslaved in federal penitentiaries, prisons and jails across this nation under the watchful eye of the new overseers: correctional officers.

We can no longer remain silent and allow our communities to remain as war zones and prisons as modern-day slave quarters.

It is time to wake up, people. Over 50 years since the Brown vs. Board of Education  U.S. Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools, there is an unprecedented number of African Americans in jails and prisons, with many unable to read or write. In 1954, there were an estimated 98,000 African Americans in jail or prison; today there are more than one million.

That is a shocking statistic because America’s current prison population is estimated at over 2.5 million people under some form of judicial control. More than 52 percent of African-American men incarcerated do not have a high school education.

Education is less expensive and is the key to short-term and long-term solutions addressing poverty, gangs, violence and early death. Gangs and violence and the subsequent code of silence among residents will not help alleviate the problem; it just exacerbate it.

Like Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Keep hope alive.

*Richard P. Burton Sr. is director of Project R.E.A.C.H. Inc. based in Jacksonville. He may be reached