The 45th American President took credit this week for a day recognized long before he existed. True to form, he did so using the infamous words of another man: this time, his MAGA hat-sporting fan Kanye West. Embracing his inner Weird Al wannabe, the President claims “Juneteenth…I made [that day] very famous.”
He refers in this statement to the rally he intentionally scheduled for June 19, and to the attention he believes he brings to the day with his re-election event. One can almost hear his sleep-talk: “Bad press…better than no press, Ivanka. A little lower…a little lower.”
The rally moved to the following day after widespread retaliation to the deafening dog-whistle of his original announcement. “So, the President would like to host a rally,” the People wonder, as they suffer a pandemic and nationwide unrest. “On Juneteenth? In Tulsa, Oklahoma?” the People’s ears tuning to the underlying hostility. Tulsa is the city in which America’s once-wealthiest Black community was massacred by land and air 100 years ago. Hundreds of lives and dozens of blocks of businesses remain lost.
The uncomfortable truth is, at least as it relates to many of the millions that form his base, the President probably isn’t wrong. It’s inexcusable that most Americans have likely never heard of “Juneteenth”, “Freedom Day”, or “Emancipation Day”. They are one and the same, but most American history classes still woefully ignore it (as they do the massacre of Black Wall Street). Even more infrequently does American leadership recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday.
Americans celebrate President’s Day. They recognize days for Martin Luther King Jr. and for their Veterans. The nation enshrines Independence Day each year by blasting music and fireworks into the sky. Is America’s Black population not, functionally, the veteran body of an American history of violence? Are they not the most glaring example of what “freedom” and “independence” continue to represent in the US? Is one day too much to remember that history?
Juneteenth is a holiday forgotten by America, but it is not lost to Black Americans. And they don’t need anyone to save it. To again paraphrase West, Black Americans “made [freedom] famous.” Now is the time to recognize it in perpetuity.
Various American cities, states, and employers are now scrambling to recognize the holiday on June 19. It’s easy to see why, considering current events of race relations in the US. On the morning of June 19, I awoke to find a short-notice email from the CEO of my day job. The message declared Juneteenth a company-wide holiday for the first time. So there I sat, scrambling to use that time productively. As Google, Nike, Target, and Twitter (among others) all join in, here are six reasons why it matters:
1) Union Soldiers Arrive…
June 19 marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrive in Texas, the furthest reach of the Confederate States of America. Upon their arrival, soldiers inform citizens and slaves of the remotest state that the American Civil War is won by the Union, and all slaves are henceforth free. This qualifies Juneteenth as “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day”—the day when the last of America’s slaves are informed of their freedom. More than a century later, Texas would become the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday due to the efforts of African American legislator Al Edwards.
2) …A Few Years Late
Those last-remaining slaves in Texas, or anywhere in the Confederacy for that matter, were already free in the eyes of the United States of America (Northern states) for more than two years. Confederate leaders and slaveholders were empowered to keep their slaves fearful of punishment or wholly ignorant to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, effective Jan 1, 1863. Until the Union Army conquered each front-line of the Confederacy and dismantled their federal government, it was up to the individual slave to escape their masters and claim their freedom in the North. Quite the complicated and dangerous loophole, though slaves already had a long history of resistance and revolt that pushed legislation forward.
The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves free in 1863, but it was the first Juneteenth that delivered news of freedom to the last slave. The eventual 13th Amendment to the Constitution at the end of 1865 put an official end to American slavery in the contiguous US.
America loves a celebration, especially one that exalts freedom. Juneteenth is a holiday born by hard-won progress toward freedom. The days leading to and following Juneteenth inspire musical tributes of all kinds. It is a chance for Americans to celebrate Black contributions not only to American culture but also to the concept of human freedom since the Constitutional protection of their own. These contributions are regularly consumed, but not often recognized. The festivities promote education as a reminder that it is not a guarantee to all. Juneteenth returns to the positivity of establishing community and conversation, be that around the heat of a barbecue or around the unique peace of a church altar. As is key to any American holiday, abundant food and adorning dress highlight most Juneteenth festivities.
4) A Civil Rights Movement Revival
The Great Depression of the 1930s forced many Americans into cities to attempt to secure work. With July 4 already a declared national holiday to celebrate Independence, employers were not beholden to provide time to employees for Juneteenth. The Civil Rights Movement a few decades later brought renewed attention to the day as protesting students in Atlanta wore buttons decorated with the word “Juneteenth”. The Poor Peoples March to Washington D.C. in 1968 gathered many black citizens who, afterwards, returned to their home cities to reignite passions for local Juneteenth celebrations. Minneapolis is one, and is presently a Midwestern city that Americans see as the catalyst of protests concerning race and violence in the US today.
5) Growing Recognition
Particularly this year, local leadership begins to take ownership of past failures. As the President of the United States fans the flames that seem to follow him, Governors and Mayors appeal to their Black and allied citizens. On the day, Mayor of New York City Bill DeBlasio declares Juneteenth an official city holiday starting in 2021. Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of the State of Michigan, also signed an order this week to proclaim Juneteenth a day of celebration. Both are just two examples of leaders with significant Black constituencies in similar situations of unrest in response to police violence as Juneteenth 2020 kicks off. Cities have even been busy renaming some of their streets. American corporations, including massive tech and retail companies, quickly inform their staff that Juneteenth is their newest holiday from work.
6) A Convergence of Movements
The growing recognition by certain cities, states, and corporations (most of which have been quick to declare their solidarity with Black colleagues in recent weeks) underscores the greatest opportunity: in a season of protest and general outrage, this Juneteenth weekend is a real chance for activist synergy. Juneteenth regularly promotes public vigils, marches, and talks. Black Lives Matter movements in America already have their foot on the gas pedal of those activities. The opportunity to pair the current energy of the Black Lives Matter movement in America with the celebration of this weekend’s holiday is too obvious to overlook. Juneteenth will bring more people together to demand equality and better practice from law enforcement and government, and the activism of all BLM protests will bring more visibility to the importance of recognizing this holiday weekend. Everyone involved will bring attention to both, and indeed, “make Juneteenth famous”.