At Long Last, Juneteenth

On Thursday, President Biden signed legislation making June 19, a.k.a. Juneteenth, the 11th American federal holiday and the first to obtain legal observance as a federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was designated in 1983. Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth, in 1980, and the first state to adopt it as a paid holiday for state employees, in 2020. The holiday has been called “America’s second Independence Day,” “Jubilee Day,” and “Freedom Day,” because it commemorates the day, in 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived with Union soldiers in Galveston and announced, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” More than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery had finally ended throughout the South. To paraphrase the great documentarian Michael Moore, we now have a holiday to reflect on and remember our national policy of kidnapping, raping, lynching and forcing Black slaves to build our young country.

The annual commemoration of Juneteenth, which has been observed in Galveston every year since 1866, has long included parades, musical performances, prayer gatherings, and barbecues. Although the coming years will likely see an ever greater commercialization of the day, with car dealers, appliance stores, and mattress companies marking it by offering deals you just can’t beat, this first national event comes at a time of profound national reckoning regarding race.

Inevitably, Americans will begin to think of Juneteenth as just an extra day off or another long weekend–yet another opportunity to attend a parade in the morning and then race to the local megamart for last-minute cookout supplies. It’s then that we will need to remind ourselves of why the day was set apart in the first place. Even in its first year as a national holiday, we need to recognize the unfinished work of emancipation. As Moore observes, Juneteenth won’t truly be a celebration until the Senate passes voting rights legislation, until red states stop passing voter suppression laws, until cops stop shooting unarmed Black citizens, until we end our racist mass incarceration prison-industrial complex, until a white family’s net worth is no longer 10 times greater than a Black family’s, until we have a living-minimum wage, until every school in East St. Louis is as great as every school on the Upper East Side of New York City, and until substantial apologies and reparations are made to the descendants of slaves who still, to this day, occupy the lowest rungs of our economic ladder. Accomplishments such as these will finally begin to bring an end to American slavery, more than 400 years after the first slave ship docked at our shores.