For far too long Juneteenth, marking the official end of slavery in America, has remained a niche holiday within the Black community. Now it must turn into a national holiday that all Americans should embrace.
Following George Floyd’s murder, Americans have stood up and declared that they can no longer tolerate the American status quo that devalues Black lives. Americans of all walks of life have supported defunding the police, and forcefully removed statues and monuments celebrating Confederates, slave owners and colonizers who terrorized indigenous people. Americans have occupied the streets chanting Black Lives Matter and shouting down white supremacy.
But for this revolutionary movement to last, we must erect monuments and elevate holidays that champion these ideals, and Juneteenth is part of this journey.
America is embracing a new language of freedom: one distinct from and more transcendent than America’s colonial freedom narrative with its focus on disagreements over taxation. Americans are finally acknowledging and grappling with the profound struggle people of color have always waged to liberate themselves from America’s ethnocidal white supremacy.
Many white Americans are also recognizing the inhumanity of not supporting the Black community in this struggle, and the role they have played until now in erecting and sustaining systemic racism in this country.
Marking Juneteenth is part of this redefining of freedom in America, and also a way to remind us how reluctant white America has always been to accept the freedom of Black people.
Since the founding of this nation, the efforts of Black Americans to fight for their freedom have defined this nation. Liberation and equality in America have always derived from the efforts of Black people and not white benevolence, and today’s fight mirrors the past.
It was the growing abolitionist movement of the 1800s as thousands of slaves used the Underground Railroad to find freedom in the North and Canada that created Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, and the collective Northern outrage from the inhumanity of the Dred Scott decision in 1857 that led to the Civil War.
At the start of the Civil War, the Confiscation Act of 1861 allowed Union soldiers to claim any Confederate property—including enslaved people—as their own property, and unsurprisingly Union soldiers then continued their enslavement. In Nashville, Tennessee over 2,000 African-Americans were enslaved by the Union and forced to build Fort Negley.
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Compensated Emancipation Act that granted freedom to Black people in Washington, D.C., but also compensated slave owners $300 for each slave they freed. In America, no longer owning a slave necessitated reparations, but being enslaved did not.
On July 17, 1862, the Second Confiscation Act was created and it granted freedom to all enslaved people on Union-controlled territory. The Compensated Emancipation Act and the Second Confiscation Act were the precursors to the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863, yet for obvious reasons none of these laws applied to the more than 4 million enslaved people in the Confederate states.
Soon after emancipation African-Americans enlisted in the Union army and continued to fight for their freedom.
The Confederacy fought for two more years before surrendering at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Yet, despite the end of the war the South still fought to continue slavery. John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln less than a week after the end of the war, and Southern states refused to free their slaves unless the Union military forced them to.
Texas ignored the Emancipation Proclamation, and since it was the furthest away it remained the last slaveholding state until Union soldiers arrived on June 19, 1865, (Juneteenth is a combination of June and nineteenth) and Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order Number 3 proclaiming that “all slaves are free,” but also that freedmen “will not be supported in idleness.”
The freedom and agency that Black Americans obtained on this day was a momentous occasion unprecedented in American history, yet comparatively we still only received a fraction of the support and freedom of that of white Americans. We obtained freedom in name only, and America soon created new laws (black codes, Jim Crow) and inflicted more terror (the Ku Klux Klan, police brutality, the prison industrial complex) to ensure that Black Americans remained a subjugated people.
Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump had even planned on having a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma—home of one of the deadliest racist massacres in American history—on Juneteenth this year until a national outcry resulted in him changing the rally to June 20.
After changing the date of his rally, Trump—in his limitless ignorance and self-aggrandizement—told The Wall Street Journal, “I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” and that before him,“Nobody had ever heard of it.”
Trump claimed to have discovered Black freedom, empowered those who have burned it to the ground, and applied a vulgar distortion of the historical record in order to celebrate himself. All at a moment when Americans are tearing down statues of racist American “heroes” who used similar logic.
The protests that have consumed America since Floyd’s murder are a continuation of the Black community’s centuries-long fight for freedom, and it should be evident to all Americans how this revolutionary struggle is just as, if not more, defining as America’s liberation from British rule.
On Tuesday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared that he would make Juneteenth an official state holiday saying, “It's time to elevate Juneteenth not just as a celebration by and for some Virginians, but one acknowledged and commemorated by all of us,"”
On Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order declaring Juneteenth an official paid holiday for state employees.
Additionally, major American corporations including Google, Nike, Twitter, Target and the New York Times (as well as The Daily Beast) have also chosen to embrace Juneteenth and honor it as a holiday.
As I think about the profound outcry for change and racial justice that are consuming the nation, and the growing appreciation of Juneteenth, I keep on thinking about a conversation I had with a young Latino activist in June of 2018.
He was in D.C. protesting the Trump administration’s family separation policies, and when his mother asked him what he wanted to do for the Fourth of July, he said he did not want to celebrate it. The fight that American colonizers waged against the British had no connection to fight for life and liberty that his community currently waged against a white supremacist government, so he wanted to celebrate Juneteenth instead.
The fight for racial equality resonated with this young boy more than a white-dominated interpretation of freedom, and he wanted to celebrate Juneteenth alongside the Black community.
This month, that same boy lied face-down in the street, placed his arms behind his back and stayed there for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor and remembrance of George Floyd. He is only 11 years old. On Thursday we celebrated the continuation of DACA, and on Friday we are celebrating Juneteenth together.