Last week I wrote about the irrationality of the ever-expanding opposition to critical race theory (CRT). This week, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The House will soon pass the bill and President Joe Biden will sign it into law.
While I wholeheartedly support this legislative gesture, which is more than a century past due, I find it ironic for this bill to have passed so easily in Congress’ upper chamber. Virtually all Republicans oppose CRT, which is an academic discipline whose process concludes that race-based chattel slavery is at the very core of the American story. I am skeptical about Republicans’ motivation for supporting the resolution. However, I am genuinely surprised that the more dominant reaction that I feel is relief that it passed. Truly bipartisan bills are very rare these days; bipartisan bills regarding racial progress are nearly nonexistent.
For those who may not be aware (which would be both very sad and completely unsurprising), Juneteenth commemorates the fact that enslaved African Americans in Texas were unaware that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect Jan. 1, 1863. This presidential action declared that enslaved people who lived in the Confederacy were now free. (Unless, of course, they lived in the parts of the Confederacy that were under control of the Union. Or they lived in the Union itself. In both of those instances, they were still legally enslaved.)
In any case, on June 19, 1865, Union Major-General Gordon Granger read General Orders No. 3 in Galveston, Texas:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
A year later, the newly freed African Americans decided to commemorate the occasion by implementing what was initially known as Jubilee Day — a title that had overtly biblical underpinnings. Now known as Juneteenth, the celebration has often been referred to as “America’s second Independence Day.” In my opinion, that is an appropriate appellation. Appropriately, in 1980 Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. (Incidentally, the name is a portmanteau of June and nineteenth.)
This coming Saturday, 155 years after that first celebration, many African Americans (and others) will celebrate Juneteenth. Some businesses and nonprofits even close in honor of the day. Over the years, Juneteenth has frequently been more than a commemoration and celebration. For example, people have used the occasion to register voters or to advocate for racial equity. This year has particular resonance as we recently marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Today, I believe that we should focus on five areas: voting rights, economic mobility, anti-violence, education and racial equity. (Obviously, there is substantial overlap among these categories.) What if we used this annual occasion to redouble our efforts in these areas? What if we created spaces for the elders who we honor in parades to sit and talk with teenagers who are experiencing isolation and trauma? What if we started “giving circles” that created scholarships for low-income youth to attend college? In the words of retired DJ and social activist Tom Joyner, “Let’s party with a purpose.”
It is nearly impossible for me to imagine the incongruent mix of hope, optimism, joy and fear that must have engulfed the freedmen (and freedwomen) as they literally and figuratively walked out of physical bondage. We owe them a debt of honor not only to celebrate their will to survive, but also to reify that which they must have despaired of even dreaming.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.