For most minorities, especially African Americans, “Independence” Day always comes with quotation marks around it. That’s because the document that declared “all men are created equal” did not include people of African descent.
No. They had no rights. They were not people. They were property.
Frederick Douglass put it like this in his address, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.
So when Independence Day rolls around each year, African Americans face a dilemma. While we wish to celebrate the hard-won freedoms of this nation and its material prosperity, we are also aware of the ways our liberty has been and still is circumscribed.
In light of slavery and its ongoing consequences how should citizens celebrate Independence Day? Here’s a suggestion. Make Juneteenth a national holiday.
For those who don’t know, Juneteenth is oldest-known celebration of the end of American slavery. It is called Juneteenth because it is commemorated on June 19 every year. That’s the date in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned of their freedom, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
While over forty states currently recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, it should be a national one. Here are three reasons why.
It’s not enough to take down symbols of the Confederacy, we have 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 protest that summoned memories of Ku Klux Klan rallies of the past.
Enshrining Juneteenth as a national holiday centers people of African descent in a way that counters their marginalized status in the “Lost Cause” narrative. People who want to keep Confederate monuments say the statues are about “heritage not hate.” But the heritage they emphasize puts white people at the heart of the story and renders black people invisible or content with unfreedom. A Juneteenth national holiday would help American citizens view the Civil War from the perspective of those most affected by its outcome—black people.
Emancipation is one of the most important events in U.S. history and all citizens should celebrate it.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in 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 ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution as documents of foundational importance to the United States. No other legislation so profoundly altered the landscape of the country for the present and the future. Juneteenth should be recognized as a national holiday because it is a singular moment in U.S. history.
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.
It said, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 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 from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington D.C. She tried to gather 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 calls 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 bonds. But enough recognition has been given to those who impose bondage on others. It is time to memorialize an occasion that marks liberty as both a reality and an aspiration.