Which American holiday, more than any other, is the day that Americans celebrate the deeply held ideals of liberty, justice, and freedom from oppression?
The answer depends on whom you ask. While most Americans identify the Fourth of July as that cherished symbol of freedom, for many black Americans, the answer has always been a little more complicated. In reality, America has always had two independence days: the Fourth of July, and Juneteenth.
Of the Fourth of July, Frederick Douglass said, “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” A former slave, Douglass explained to his white audience in 1852 the hypocrisy inherent in the Declaration of Independence that was authored by slave-owning men: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”
By contrast, Juneteeth is emblematic of the delayed quest for freedom and racial justice for Black Americans. It falls on June 19th and derives its moniker from the combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth.” Contrary to popular belief, slavery did not end on January 1, 1863, upon Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. First of all, because Lincoln did not want to alienate the slave states still loyal to the Union (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri), his proclamation freed only those slaves living in states that were not under Union control. Second, it took time for the Union to enforce the proclamation.
On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the end of the Civil War, word made it to Texas that the war had ended and that the slaves were free. The following year, Texas celebrated the first Juneteenth. In subsequent years, Juneteenth became officially recognized in forty-seven states and the District of Columbia, but to this day lacks status as a federal holiday.
This Juneteenth, the 155th anniversary of the original celebration, has taken on additional meaning as a result of recent events. The lynchings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and too many others has shed a tragic but much-needed spotlight on the foundational idea that Black lives matter—the notion that, due to the ugly legacy of slavery and racism, Black Americans suffer injustices such as police murder at hugely disproportionate rates—which appears to have finally gained acceptance among a majority of Americans. Since then, worldwide, citizens have taken to the streets in protest and have demanded an end, once and for all, to police brutality.
Juneteenth: A Brief History
On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger dispatched via telegraph an order that proclaimed all 250,000 slaves in Texas were free (General Order No.3). But for those slaves, this recognition was not a magic gateway to freedom. Slave masters at the time strategized when and how to make the announcement, with some attempting to delay it until after the harvest. One formerly enslaved woman, named Katie Darling, continued working for six additional years, and emphasized that her mistress “whip me after the war jist like she did ‘fore.” Despite confusion, delay, and racist violence, with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, June 19th was used as a date for rallying, and the ongoing celebration of Juneteenth represents one of the most remarkable grassroots efforts following the Civil War.
Juneteenth festivities during that time included things such as rodeos, barbeque pits, and strawberry soda pop at church sites. Cooking would take all night and prayer was a part of the celebrations. Formal attire was commonly worn, particularly as there once were laws that forbade enslaved people to dress up. Some would use the day to search for displaced family members. These celebrations flourished for decades, with upwards of 20,000 people at one festivity. As Black Americans migrated to California and Oklahoma, celebrations spread nationally.
A period of decline in the celebration of Juneteenth followed its initial spread, due to various educational, economic, and cultural factors. Textbooks omitted narratives of the enslaved, and the knowledge of the history behind Juneteeth took a backseat to celebrating and understanding the Fourth of July. Most employers denied Juneteenth as a day off until its resurgence during the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil Rights Movement yielded both hopes and disappointments for Juneteenth, particularly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many Black youth participated in protests and were members of student-led organizations that advocated for the day. Juneteenth freedom buttons were commonplace. While the focus of these protests was more on racial justice, the youth traced their quests for freedom to that of their ancestors. In 1968, Reverend Ralph Abernathy sparked a resurgence of Juneteenth through the Poor People’s March to Washington, D.C., and attendees returned home to revitalize or initiate Juneteeth celebrations nationally. Two of the biggest celebrations are in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
Juneteenth: Why It Should Be a Federal Holiday
It is past time for Juneteenth to be declared a national holiday. Of the eleven holidays recognized by the federal government, there is not yet one that commemorates the end of the longest and most oppressive institution to exist in the United States: slavery. Juneteenth should be commemorated nationally, because it serves as a reminder that the most widely accepted narrative of our collective American past doesn’t represent the whole truth. The erasure of Black and indigenous narratives is one of the main forms of the systemic oppression of these groups today. Historically, Black people have been among the last groups to reap the benefits of social progress, which is represented by the delay between the Emancipation Proclamation and Major General Granger’s announcement. To continue to deny Blacks the recognition of this history with a federal holiday is to continue that legacy.
As it currently stands, Juneteenth is seen as a day of observation in most of the United States: forty-seven states and the District of Columbia recognize it as such. While attention at the federal level is limited to floor speeches in Congress or presidential memos, local governments such as Detroit’s have committed time and resources to celebrations that last days and even weeks. The time has come for the United States to recognize Juneteenth as a paid, federal holiday.
Juneteenth is known as being a time for reflection and remembering our past; and for many of us, reflecting on the ways in which we still have not lived up to our highest ideals. In addition to celebrating and reflecting, we must actively dismantle the racist systems that continue to subjugate the Black community today. This means listening to Black experiences, elevating Black voices, and championing the initiatives of Black leaders driving change.
Juneteenth’s Significance to Our Present Moment
Also known as “Freedom Day” to the Black American community, the significance of Juneteenth is particularly important this year. It approaches in the backdrop of protests—protests against systemic racism and police brutality sparked largely by the murder of George Floyd. The United States is in a moment of reckoning for a past and present that has been rooted in white supremacy and the subjugation of Black Americans and other people of color.
Based on the images of vast demonstrations, the groups calling for racial justice are some of the most diverse in history. The important question is: What will we do with this moment, this clarion call? Will we squander it and return to business as usual? Or, will this moment spark tangible change? Several cities and states have already announced key police reforms, including diverting police funding to community programs; banning chokeholds; banning “no-knock” warrants (also known as Breonna’s law, after police murder victim Breonna Taylor); banning the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to disperse protesters; and disbanding police forces. At the federal level, the Congressional Black Caucus has led Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate in introducing the Justice in Policing Act of 2020. The bill aims to make it easier to prosecute police misconduct and hold the police accountable for senseless brutality and killings. It would work to end racial and religious profiling; ban aggressive, harmful tactics including chokeholds and no-knock warrants; require body cameras and dashboard cameras; make lynching a federal crime; and set restrictions on military-grade weaponry.
While addressing police brutality is a major component in the Movement for Black Lives, the calls to action are also broader and intersectional. The lived experience of racism translates into a complicated reality for Black Americans. Because racism is part of every institution and structure in the United States, protesters and organizers are also calling for action on other key social justice issues that are part of a shared vision for Black lives, including reparations; releasing people from jails, prisons, and detention centers; economic justice; political control and voting rights; national demands for COVID-19; housing and health care for all; school integration and equitable resources; and others. This year on Juneteenth weekend, June 19–21, 2020, the Movement for Black Lives will also be engaging in activism at the White House and across the nation.
In 1852, in his Fourth of July speech, Federick Douglass grappled with many of the same issues we wrestle with now as a nation, most pressing among them, the need to recognize the equally powerful legacies of both freedom and oppression in America’s past, coupled with a glimmer of hope for a more just future.
Among Douglass’s final words to his audience, “While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.” May we muster the strength as a nation to seize the opportunity of this awakening, and take concrete steps for change, first among them, rightfully recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.