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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why Juneteenth Matters

Despite corporate attempts to co-opt it, the holiday is a powerful counterpoint to the Fourth of July that demands a continuing rebirth of freedom.

On June 19, 1968, Washington, D.C. was under siege from a radical iteration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beloved Community.” Ralph Abernathy, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), had invited people from all across the country to stand in solidarity with the Poor People’s Campaign, then encamped in the nation’s capital demanding support for the poor across ethnic and racial lines in the United States. That June 19 was chosen as “Solidarity Day” was no coincidence. Indeed, the day’s significance as Juneteenth lent the proceedings a greater historical and rhetorical depth. Abernathy, King Jr.’s spouse Coretta Scott King, and their fellow activists were demanding nothing less than a rebirth of freedom—one tied to the last rebirth of freedom, in 1865. 

    As a holiday and a day of celebration, Juneteenth has never been better known than it is today—both inside and outside the Black American community. A Juneteenth flag, first designed in 1997, now flies at various military bases every year. And this year, a national uproar over President Donald Trump initially scheduling a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma—sparked by both the timing of the Juneteenth celebration and the Tulsa race riot of 1921—has further pushed the holiday into the national consciousness. But the humble roots of the holiday and its continued existence illustrate the Black American struggle to forge their own remembrance of America’s past, stripped of unearned pomp and circumstance, but nonetheless filled with a pledge to cherish—and defend—freedom. 

    The holiday’s origins spring from the chaotic end of the American Civil War in the late spring and early summer of 1865. While Union armies had broken the Army of Northern Virginia, and forced the surrender of the Army of Tennessee in the east, it would be months before word of the end of the conflict reached Texas. Texas itself did not see any major battles, and the distance of the state from the rest of the nation, along with slave-owners simply not informing their slaves of wartime developments, meant word of exciting events back east took a long time to reach the enslaved.  By then, the Emancipation Proclamation had already promised freedom to enslaved people still held in the Confederacy after January 1, 1863. In addition, the House and Senate had both passed the 13th Amendment to ban slavery, pending approval by the necessary three-fourths of state legislatures. 

In Texas, Confederate generals tried to hold out after April 1865, but most Confederate soldiers, aware that the war in the east was over, began deserting in the spring of 1865. Slaveholders in bordering Confederate states fled to Texas with enslaved people in tow, determined to extract the last ounce of unearned labor from their “property.” 

Freedom finally arrived in Texas on June 19, 1865, when U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger issued General Orders, Number Three.  The orders stated, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” The proclamation went on to confirm a “new normal” for Texas: “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

Juneteenth marks the slaveholders’ failure to hold on to their power—a final, thundering death blow to slavery in the United States. The holiday was created by Black Americans as a local version of a celebration of freedom. Nationally, Emancipation Day, which commemorated the official date of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, was celebrated on January 1 across the nation well into the 20th century. The contribution of Juneteenth by Black Texans to the broader Black American pantheon of celebrations and holidays should be cherished, just like that of the first Decoration Day held by Black South Carolinians in 1865. Decoration Day began in Charleston as Black Americans honored deceased Union soldiers while celebrating their own newfound freedom. Decoration Day would later become known as “Memorial Day,” a day of mourning American lives lost in all wars.  

In its earliest days, Juneteenth was confined primarily to Texas.  As Black Americans migrated out of the South starting in the late 19th century, the holiday spread to other parts of the country. But in Texas itself, the size of the festivities waxed and waned. In 1936, the Texas State Fair became the site for a massive Juneteenth celebration, held as it was during a larger observance of the centennial of Texas’ independence. According to folklorist William H. Wiggins, the 1936 event saw between 150,000 to 200,000 attendees. After World War II, the celebration again reached large numbers within Texas, with a massive, 70,000-person event organized by Black Americans at the Texas State Fair. Still, it would not be until the 1970s that Juneteenth would take off permanently—this time experiencing a revival across the nation. 

    The timing was not a coincidence. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, and with the ascendancy of the Black Power Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black Americans began to cherish even more their own institutions, holidays, and place in American history. The push to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday began only four days after his assassination in 1968, with a bill introduced by John Conyers, the late congressman from Detroit. Several cities made a holiday of King’s birthday in the 1970s, until the campaign for a national holiday—punctuated by the famous Stevie Wonder song “Happy Birthday” released in 1981—finally succeeded in 1983. (This happened despite President Reagan’s opposition to the holiday, who claimed that King was a communist and that a national holiday was too expensive. A veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress forced Reagan’s hand.)

Thanks to the efforts of state representative Al Edwards of Houston, Juneteenth eventually became a Texas state holiday in 1980. Before entering politics, Edwards had been a Civil Rights activist, and he knew well the history of Juneteenth in his state. Edwards, elected in 1978, pushed for the holiday as a freshman state representative. Ironically, some of the opposition to Houston’s bill came from other Black American members of the Texas State legislature, who feared it would divert attention from their work to make King’s birthday a state holiday. Edwards mounted a concerted campaign to get his bill passed, and at one point even supported a colleague’s anti-abortion bill to garner conservative support for Juneteenth. Explaining why Juneteenth matters in 1986, Edwards had said, “This is not like a birthday or a national holiday. We’re celebrating people who were once enslaved and now they’re not.”

 Meanwhile, across the nation, Black Americans began to embrace Juneteenth once more. The national version of the holiday likely got a spark from the June 19th Solidarity Day protest in 1968. The events of Solidarity Day left a profound impression on activists, and when they returned from the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. to locales across the nation, many decided to bring the Juneteenth holiday with them. 

Today, Juneteenth reflects several key facets of Black American life that should not be ignored.  Besides commemorating the final defeat of slave owners in the United States, Juneteenth also marks an occasion to reflect on the long history of Black Americans in Texas and Oklahoma, which is often glossed over when talking about the broader Black American experience.  Tulsa, Oklahoma was home to “Black Wall Street” in the early 20th century, and was destroyed during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. However, Black Americans in Tulsa attempted to rebuild “Black Wall Street,” displaying the kind of persistence that is a hallmark of Black American history.  None of this history would have been possible without the promise of freedom brought forth by the advance of Union armies in 1865. Juneteenth is a celebration of that hope for the future. 

    Second, Juneteenth is a powerful counter-celebration to the Fourth of July. Where the latter represents the birth of the United States, Juneteenth embodies the nation’s rebirth after the freeing of four million people. It presents an opportunity for every American to rethink our narrative of freedom, and what freedom itself actually means, but also how people of African descent are critical to that narrative. Juneteenth is a celebration to be sure, but it is also somber, as it combines the patriotism of Independence Day with the purposeful remembrance of Memorial Day. Juneteenth’s celebratory flag, perhaps, says it all: a white star in the center, a representation of Texas, bursting with the promise of freedom, surrounded by blue and red. 

    In recent years, Juneteenth has become increasingly commercialized, with various corporations embracing the holiday, and some even offering it as a day off for workers. Various corporations, such as Google, the National Football League, and Nike have marked it as a paid holiday. In 2020, there is more interest in the holiday than ever before, due to the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Commercialization is as American an apple pie, of course; and it would be reasonable to worry, just a little, about this holiday losing its true meaning. But commercialization also means that Juneteenth is moving into the mainstream and with that, into our collective consciousness. Now begins the hard work of preserving its soul.

PHOTO: Chants for Antwon Rose Jr. fill the air on Fifth Avenue during Pittsburgh’s Juneteenth Parade from Freedom Corner in the Hill District to Point State Park, Saturday, June 23, 2018. The parade served as an outlet for the crowd to protest East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, a Woodland Hills High School honors student. (Andrew Russell/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP)

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