Americans march for racial justice on Juneteenth anniversary
Black Lives Matter Protest Times Square New York City June 7 2020. Photo by Anthony Quintano.

Americans took to the streets of cities around the country on Friday to demand racial justice on a day heavy with symbolism -- the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Marches and rallies were being held in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Washington and other cities against a backdrop of weeks of protests fueled 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 at the same time threatening protesters on Twitter.

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.

Juneteenth is generally celebrated with prayer services and family gatherings but it comes this year amid a national soul-searching over America's legacy of racial injustice.

The United States 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.

In Chicago, thousands of demonstrators staged a peaceful march carrying huge black banners emblazoned with a picture of Floyd and his name.

Protestors 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.

Demonstrators took to the streets of New York and gathered in Washington outside the Lincoln Memorial and on a street near the White House which has been renamed "Black Lives Matter Plaza."

A small demonstration was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ahead of a "Juneteenth Rally for Justice" that is to feature a speech by civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

- 'Will be a much different scene!' -

Trump scheduled a campaign rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, his first since the coronavirus pandemic began, but was forced to change it to Saturday amid a public outcry over his provocative choice of date and location.

Tulsa suffered one of the country's worst racist massacres, in 1921, when as many as 300 black Americans were killed.

Trump, who is facing a tough re-election battle in November and has adopted a hardline "law and order" stance towards protestors, and First Lady Melania Trump issued a joint statement to mark Juneteenth.

"Juneteenth reminds us of both the unimaginable injustice of slavery and the incomparable joy that must have attended emancipation," it said.

"This Juneteenth, we commit, as one Nation, to live true to our highest ideals and to build always toward a freer, stronger country that values the dignity and boundless potential of all Americans."

At the same time, Trump issued a blunt warning to counter-protesters at his Tulsa rally.

"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 G.T. Bynum declared a curfew in the city amid fears of violence but Trump later announced it had been lifted for "our many supporters" attending his rally.

Alicia Andrews, the chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, criticized Trump's decision to hold his campaign event in Tulsa.

"His presence will divide us, his words will incite prejudice, and his ego-driven rally will pose new threats to Oklahomans' health," Andrews said in an op-ed in The Oklahoman newspaper.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has a solid lead over Trump in the latest polls, said Juneteenth "reminds us of how vulnerable our nation is to being poisoned by systems and acts of inhumanity.

"But it's also a reminder of our ability to change," Biden said. "Together, we can lay the roots of real and lasting justice, and become the extraordinary nation that was promised to all."

- 'Day of reflection' -

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, said Juneteenth was being marked "during a moment of extraordinary national anguish, as we grieve for the hundreds of Black Americans killed by racial injustice and police brutality."

"This Juneteenth must be a day of reflection that moves our nation to finally confront and combat its long and shameful history of systemic racial injustice targeted at communities of color."

Pelosi recalled that she had ordered the removal this week of portraits of leaders of the pro-slavery Civil War South from the US Capitol.

Several monuments depicting Confederate figures have been toppled by demonstrators over the past few weeks who have been protesting systemic racism, police brutality and injustice in the world's flagship democracy.

Several major US companies have announced they were making Juneteenth a paid holiday and Elon Musk's Tesla and SpaceX did so on Friday.