Story at a glance
- Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in America, originating in Texas.
- Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests raised awareness of the systemic racism in United States history, dating back to the enslavement of Black people.
- Biden signed a law officially designating June 19 as National Independence Day, a federal holiday.
Centuries after Juneteenth, the nation is recognizing the end of slavery in America as National Independence Day — the day all unincarcerated Americans were granted their independence.
While slavery may have been technically outlawed as of Sept. 22, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, the nature of communications at the time meant that millions of enslaved peoples did not learn of their freedom until much later. In Texas, one of the farthest states from Washington, D.C., at the time, about 250,000 enslaved people were freed on June 19, 1865, today celebrated as Juneteenth.
On Wednesday, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, officially making June 19 a federal holiday and day off of work for millions of Americans. But while some Americans will be celebrating this day for the first time, many Black Americans have celebrated this historic day for centuries.
"As a kid, I always looked forward to the Juneteenth festival my mom took me to. Growing up in Birmingham, in a Black neighborhood, going to a Black school, we usually learned Black History in the context of a struggle—against Jim Crow, against enslavement, against the systems that sought to obliterate Blackness and Black people," said Danielle Hurd-Wilson, Interim Deputy Director of Field and Programs at the nonprofit URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, in a statement. "But the Juneteenth celebrations I went to growing up were centered around the joy of liberation and the vast, vast possibilities that lay in front of Black people who were to no longer be treated as property."
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The fight for personhood, however, did not end with the freedom from enslavement but continues today in the fight for citizenship, including the right to vote. Decades after the 15th Amendment was passed, protecting the right to vote for all citizens regardless of race or color, Black Americans continue to face obstacles keeping them from voting, including gerrymandering, voter identification laws and even a lack of access to the polls.
"With state legislatures actively working to undermine our rights and strip us of our most basic freedoms, the parallels to Juneteenth are uncanny," said Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown, co-founders of Black Voters Matter. "Every bill to suppress votes, criminalize protests, and weaken Black power is a reminder of the enduring history of slavery in this country."
On Friday, Black Voters Matter is boarding the "Blackest Bus in America" for a voter outreach tour from Jackson, Miss., to Washington D.C., stopping in key southern states as part of its Freedom Ride for Voting Rights. The campaign hopes to raise awareness of voter suppression and forge connections with communities — all while honoring the legacy of the civil rights movement 60 years after the original Freedom Rides in 1961.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which disproportionately killed Black Americans, and the murder of George Floyd by a former police officer, Black activists are raising awareness of issues such as these. And while some things have changed in the last year, systemic racism, economic disadvantages, medical discrimination and police violence continue to harm the community, for whom the federal holiday means little without positive change.
In response to the passage of the legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday, the Black Lives Matter organization tweeted, “Yeah but do this for radical Black policy. Start by passing HB 40. We won’t be bamboozled by political theater.”
Yeah but do this for radical Black policy.— Black Lives Matter (@Blklivesmatter) June 16, 2021
Start by passing HB 40.
We won’t be bamboozled by political theater... https://t.co/aP1iVGnOmO
The legislation the organization named, House Bill 40, would establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. The study would look at the role of the federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery and discrimination as well as the ongoing impact of slavery on Black Americans.
For Opal Lee, the 94-year-old activist from Fort Worth, Texas, who makes a 2-1/2 mile pilgrimage each year to commemorate Juneteenth, the recognition of Black history is a start.
“I think it was enough is enough. I think losing that man’s life just pushed us over the edge. We’ve put up with so much,” Lee told Variety. “When I think about what our ancestors had to put up with before the Emancipation — before that General Order No. 3 was declared down in Galveston — the situations aren’t that far different.”
So what can you do to celebrate this day in American history? For one, learn your history. Read about the history of slavery, Juneteenth, the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Drugs and voter suppression — for a start. When you do, consider your sources and seek out Black historians, authors and witnesses of this living history. While Juneteenth marks a day in history centuries ago, its consequences reverberate through today.
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