Why Juneteenth Should Be a National Holiday
America fought its bloodiest war mainly over the issue of slavery. It took the deaths of over half a million citizens to abolish the heinous institution. This figure does not account for the untold numbers of black lives devastated by slavery—brutal corporal punishments, the centuries of strenuous physical labor without remuneration, and, significantly for this contemporary moment, the separation of husbands and wives and children from parents. No number could ever quantify the pain of slavery for black people in America.
The demise of what many have called America’s “original sin” would seem to be a likely candidate for frequent, even annual, commemoration nationwide. The moment when millions of black people finally gained the liberation for which they had been fighting since at least 1619 deserves space in the calendar to remember who America truly is and how much effort it takes to overcome the racism that often characterizes life in this nation. At present, though, the most logical occasion to mark the abolition of slavery, Juneteenth, is marked at the state but not the national level.
Juneteenth, a mashup of the words June and nineteenth, remembers the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas finally learned about their emancipation. It is the oldest-known celebration of black freedom from slavery. And it should be a national holiday.
While over forty states currently recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, it should be a national one. Here are three reasons why.
1. Juneteenth is a way to highlight freedom.
In recent days several cities have made high-profile initiatives to take down Confederate monuments. Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans made the bold decision to remove four statues honoring the Confederacy which defended slavery. Workers had to take down the monuments at night, wearing masks and with police protection to shield them from potentially violent protesters. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the city’s plans to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson met with a racist rally that summoned memories of Ku Klux Klan rallies of the past.
While Confederate monuments should come down, that’s only part of what healing from the racial wounds of slavery and racism entails. Positive reminders of the struggle for freedom must be created.
Enshrining Juneteenth as a national holiday centers people of African descent in a way that puts the black freedom struggle in the middle of the American story. Confederate monuments and icons put white people at the heart of America’s history while rendering black people as mere objects or perpetual victims. A Juneteenth national holiday would help American citizens view the Civil War and emancipation from the perspective of those most affected by its outcome—black people.
2. Emancipation is one of the most important events in U.S. history.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in certain states of the Confederacy on January 1, 1863. Then on December 6, 1865, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery nationwide. Finally, the institution that had kidnapped millions from their homeland, separated families, exposed women and children to sexual assault, made lives disposable, and reduced human beings to property, had been legally eradicated. The end of slavery is a milestone every American should celebrate.
The Emancipation Proclamation, along with the further changes that it precipitated, ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution as documents of foundational importance to the United States. The Proclamation opened the way for further legislation designed to grant black people their civil and human rights such as the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which officially abolished slavery nationwide, granted citizenship status to black people, and prohibited voter discrimination based on race or “previous condition of servitude” respectively. Few other legislative acts so profoundly altered the landscape of the country. Juneteenth should be recognized as a national holiday because it is a singular moment in U.S. history, and it solidifies the reality that black history is American history.
3. Celebrating Juneteenth as a national holiday reminds us how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.
Freedom has always come with an asterisk in America. Emancipation was one step toward full equality. But in many ways African Americans and other people of color remain in bondage. Poor education , a massive racial wealth gap, and biased sentencing in criminal justice continue to affect minorities at disproportional rates. Even the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery, left a loophole for forced labor to continue by including the following clause: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The exception contained in the amendment made convict-leasing possible and served as a foundation for mass incarceration.
Commemorating Juneteenth as a national holiday would both amplify the agency of black people in securing the end of race-based chattel slavery while also motivating present-day activism for securing the full independence and equality of all people.
People have been trying to make Juneteenth a national holiday for years. Ninety year old educator and black civil rights advocate Opal Lee, made a highly publicized symbolic walk in 2016 from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington D.C. She tried to gather the 100,000 signatures necessary to get the White House’s attention. Time ran out before she could get the required number, but her work highlights the call to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
In 2016, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) got a resolution passed formally designating June 19 as “Juneteenth Independence Day.” Ronald D. Myers, M.D., a medical missionary in the Mississippi Delta founded the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation to promote the cause. More recently an online petition hosted on the Color of Change website called for recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Full freedom has not been achieved for all Americans. Too many people still struggle to break all kinds of gender, racial, ethnic, and economic bonds. The fight for the full equality and freedom of all Americans goes on still. But the time is now and long past for the nation to memorialize Juneteenth as a day that marks liberty as both a reality and an aspiration.