Weeks of heightened civil rights protests following a stream of police killings has renewed interest in Juneteenth as a commemoration of the struggle for racial justice and equal treatment for Black people.
Despite President Trump’s claims in the Wall Street Journal he “made Juneteenth very famous,” African Americans have been celebrating the day news of freedom reached the last enslaved people in the Confederate South for 155 years.
It took word of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to rebelling states, over two and a half years to reach the 250,000 captives in Galveston, Texas. Union General Gordon Granger read the proclamation, known as General Orders 3, announcing “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.”
Freedmen and women sought to reconstruct separated families and begin a life of autonomy, but former Confederate soldiers responded with a bloody campaign of domestic terrorism. Still dressed in uniform rags, they lynched, looted, raped and menaced Blacks across Texas, aided by laws and customs that constrained the promised “absolute equality.”
Freedmen celebrated Juneteenth annually anyway, a bittersweet victory, with readings of the proclamation, speeches, reunions, and feasts.
As Black Texans migrated across the country, making inroads especially in Los Angeles and Chicago, they took the tradition with them, and Juneteenth became unbound from its geographical origins.
Martin Luther King Jr. was planning the Poor People’s March when he was assassinated in April 1968. Civil rights leaders chose the deeply symbolic holiday to hold a Solidarity Day rally in Washington, D.C., that year. More than 50,000 people attended, further spreading the holiday’s popularity and raising Juneteenth’s profile in mainstream America for perhaps the first time.
Texas made it a state holiday in 1980, and President Barack Obama issued a statement of well-wishing to mark the day every year of his presidency. Currently, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way. (Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota do not.)
The Trump administration has issued proclamations on the holiday each year as well. But the president claimed ignorance of the historic day when hit with backlash for planning to resume his campaign rallies on June 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma—the site of one of the worst racial massacres in American history. He changed the date “out of respect.”
“It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
Despite Trump’s knowledge—or lack thereof—the weeks of heightened civil rights protests following a stream of police killings has renewed interest in Juneteenth as a commemoration of the struggle for racial justice and equal treatment for Black people.
Many, in fact, argue Juneteenth should be recognized as a national holiday.
Across the nation, mass demonstrations are planned for the holiday, and organizations are mobilizing for greater police accountability, to defund departments or abolish them altogether.
The national conversation around race and equality has prompted corporations such as NFL, Nike, and Twitter to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday for their employees.
“We recognize that the racial trauma the country is experiencing now is not new, but throughout recent weeks there has been a sense that this time is, and has to be, different,” Target CEO and chairman Brian Cornell posted on the company’s web site. “Juneteenth takes on additional significance in this moment.”
Although it took 20 years for MLK Day to win national recognition, advocates pushing for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday hope this moment provides the momentum needed to reach the goal. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas plans to introduce just such a bill, along with her yearly resolution to recognize the holiday’s historical significance. This year it has more than 200 co-sponsors—a weighty accompaniment to the federal petition.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said Thursday he plans to introduce corresponding legislation in the State.
“There needs to be a reckoning, an effort to unify. One thing about national holidays, they help educate people about what the story is. Juneteenth legislation is a call for freedom, but it also reinforces the history of African Americans. We’ve fought for this country,” Jackson Lee told Time Magazine.
“We’ve made great strides, but we’re still the victims of sharp disparities. Our neighborhoods reflect that. We’ve been denied the same opportunities for housing, access to healthcare and, in 2020, [during] COVID-19, all of the glaring disparities are shown. Because of that, I think this is a time that we may find people who are desirous to understand the history not necessarily only of African Americans, but the history of America.”