Commemorating Juneteenth: Learn from the past to improve the present and future

President Biden holds the newly signed Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House
Getty Images

I was encouraged to see that Republicans joined Democrats in Congress this week to overwhelmingly approve making Juneteenth a federal holiday to mark the end of slavery, and that President Biden signed the bill into law Thursday. 

At a time when the political parties fight about almost everything, it was good to see they could agree to the long-overdue acknowledgement of what former President Barack Obama called “this nation’s original sin.” The Senate unanimously passed the bill creating the new holiday, to be observed every June 19. The House approved it Wednesday by a vote of 415-14, with all the opposition coming from Republicans. 

But while making June 19 a holiday is an important step, it’s only the beginning of what must be done to shine a spotlight on the immoral institution of slavery and the systemic racism that continues to plague America, although conditions for Black Americans have certainly improved since 1865. And the media should use Juneteenth in future years to air programming about slavery and racism and the horrors they have inflicted.

We don’t need another holiday that revolves around department store sales, barbecues and a day at the beach. We need to use the new Juneteenth holiday as a day of education and rededication to the long struggle for equality and justice for all.

Many schools are off for summer by June 19, but those still in session should devote the holiday to day-long sessions studying slavery and racial discrimination throughout American history. Schools beginning summer vacation before June 19 should mark the holiday in the same way a few weeks early. 

We can all agree that young people should learn about what’s best about America — and as someone who loves this country, I firmly believe there is much to praise. But all Americans need to also know about our nation’s failings, including enslavement and post-Emancipation racism.  

For those not familiar with our newest holiday, Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued an order announcing to the people of Texas that all enslaved people were free. 

The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years earlier. The Civil War had ended two months before. Most enslaved people in other parts of the country already had been freed, but June 19 marked the culmination of emancipation in the former Confederate states. 

Slavery will always be an ugly stain on American history, but sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring it won’t erase it. Nor will efforts by Texas and some other states to have schools downplay the major role racism has played in America since the arrival of European colonists. 

My own ancestors were among the Africans brought to the U.S. in chains and enslaved, and then discriminated against under Jim Crow laws in the South long after. But all Americans need to learn the truth about slavery and racism, not just Black people. We shouldn’t simply whitewash the failings of our nation and pretend they never existed. If we do, we won’t learn from mistakes of the past and may repeat them. 

The Juneteenth holiday should inspire all Americans opposed to racism to work right now for the passage of important legislation. This includes the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (both of which would combat Republican voter suppression efforts that particularly hurt Black Americans), the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and other legislation designed to make equal rights a reality and not just a slogan.  

Germany presents us with a model of dealing with a terrible evil in a nation’s past. As Michele L. Norris recently wrote in The Washington Post, the way Germany has shined a spotlight on the evil of the Holocaust and the rise of the Nazis could be a model for America doing the same on the issue of slavery and racism. 

Rather than trying to ignore the horrific genocide of the Holocaust that resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews, Germany has adopted the motto “never forget” and dedicated itself to teaching successive generations about the evil of that awful period so that history never repeats itself.

In the same way, Juneteenth should be a reminder to Americans about the dehumanization and enslavement of an entire people simply because of the color of their skin. 

The goal of our newest national holiday should not be to make Americans hate our country for past sins, or to feel some sort of guilt, but to show us a way to express our love for our country by working to make it true to the noble ideals of the Declaration of Independence that “all men (and let’s add women) are created equal.” 

But we must keep in mind that those beautiful words were written by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder. Jefferson did many great things, but holding other human beings in bondage was not one of them. Never forget.  

Donna Brazile (@DonnaBrazile) is a political strategist, a contributor to ABC News, and former chair of the Democratic National Committee. She is the author of “Hacks: Inside the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.” 

Tags Abolitionism in the United States African-American culture Donald Trump Donna Brazile Emancipation day Emancipation Proclamation Joe Biden John Lewis Juneteenth Racism Slavery Slavery in the United States

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