Juneteenth Becomes First Federal Holiday to Acknowledge Country’s ‘Moral Stain’

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Carlos Barria/Reuters
Carlos Barria/Reuters

President Joe Biden on Thursday afternoon signed a bill into law establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when Union Major General Gordon Granger brought the news of former President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier to Galveston, Texas. On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved a bill making Juneteenth a legal public holiday. The next day, the House passed the bill by a 415 to 14 vote. It marks the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.

“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names,” said Vice President Kamala Harris at the bill signing. “Jubilee Day. Freedom Day. Liberation Day. Emancipation Day. And today, a national holiday.”

“When we establish a national holiday, it makes an important statement,” Harris continued. “These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock and often to acknowledge our history.”

When he took the lectern, Biden called Juneteenth “a day of profound weight and profound power,” saying it offers a chance to “remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country, and continues to, in what I’ve long called America’s original sin.”

“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” Biden said. “They embrace them.”

Government workers will now get Friday off, along with employees of many companies across the nation that are recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday, including Twitter and Nike. Last year, the NFL made Juneteenth a league holiday. Still, more than 60 percent of Americans know “nothing at all” about Juneteenth, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday.

Some 47 states now recognize Juneteenth. But to see Juneteenth recognized at the federal level is monumental, said Matt Delmont, a professor at Dartmouth University and an expert on African American history and the history of civil rights. But, he warned, Juneteenth becoming official is only the beginning of a process that is nowhere near complete.

“The problem might be that the country thinks that it has fully atoned for slavery because it’s celebrating Juneteenth,” Delmont told The Daily Beast. “We need to reckon honestly with the history of slavery, and if people see in that spirit, then I think then it will be successful.”

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At the same time, emancipation was “bittersweet” for American slaves because they still didn’t have full rights, said Delmont.

“The story is much more complicated than just saying enslaved people were freed,” he continued. “Juneteenth gives people a chance to go back and study that history. Juneteenth is also about addressing what’s facing the Black community in the present. Hopefully it will encourage people to take up issues like the attack on voting rights going on across the country, healthcare and the health disparities that Black Americans continue to face, and the ban on teaching about race and racism—you can't even teach about Juneteenth and the history of slavery if that law is on the books.”

Like others, Gloria Browne-Marshall, a civil rights lawyer who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, sees Juneteenth, at its core, as a celebration of freedom. However, she said, it is a celebration of “freedom earned—not just given.”

“But for the [200,000] African soldiers fighting on behalf of the Union, the North would have lost the war,” Browne-Marshall told The Daily Beast. “This has to be clearly stated.”

Juneteenth is already a holiday in many states. Yet, federal recognition for Juneteenth means understanding “that slavery happened here, that this country was built on the backs of imprisoned people, on land taken away from Native Americans, and that laws were made to suppress the rights of millions upon millions of human beings,” Browne-Marshall explained. “We’re not a young country anymore. We’re a mature country that needs to come to grips with this history. And Juneteenth being recognized federally is one way to at least begin that process in earnest.”

In the year since George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a Minneapolis cop trying to arrest him in May 2020, more Americans have become mindful of the difficulties that African Americans face, said Prof. Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, chair of African-American and African diaspora studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Juneteenth, she said, “is a way of calling attention to some of America’s sins, while acknowledging the beautiful possibilities for redemption.”

“The Juneteenth celebration is a proclamation of human agency on the part of African American people,” Calloway-Thomas told The Daily Beast.

And while she describes Juneteenth as mostly a celebratory event, Calloway-Thomas sees it also as a moment to acknowledge the terrible things that happened to her forebears.

“It is also a moment where my family members and I have a conversation about what it means to be free,” she said. “It is a moment for us to discuss, what have we done? And what remains to be done? And how have we worked together for the greater good, and a greater beauty and elegance of this country that we call the United States of America?”

Kevin Gannon, a professor of history at Iowa’s Grand View College, views Juneteenth as the first federally recognized holiday that inherently acknowledges that this country was an enslaving nation.

“Holidays, just by their nature, speaking broadly as a society, those tend to be seen as opportunities for consensus,” Gannon, who is white, told The Daily Beast. “You know, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, let’s talk about what the troops sacrificed for us. But Juneteenth is a commemoration of something that is by its very nature—the enslavement of other human beings—against consensus. It’s the first holiday that at least acknowledges that there hasn’t always been this unity and consensus and sort of Hallmark-style, feel-good story in this country’s history.”

The Biden administration’s recognition of Juneteenth can be viewed through a somewhat different lens than the Reagan administration’s grudging recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, said Gannon. That, he said, was an effort “by white elites to try to kind of sand off the rough edges,” of this nation’s history of racism.

“He was assassinated, he was a highly unpopular man in 1968,” said Gannon. “The FBI deemed him one of the most dangerous people in America. Now in the early 80s, it’s all, ‘Let’s celebrate his birthday because he talked about the content of our character, not the color of our skin.’ And it becomes, in a very perverse way, this tool to sort of say, ‘See? We’re not racist anymore because we celebrate King.’ And to be honest, that’s one of the things I worry about with the recognition of Juneteenth. That it becomes the same, as opposed to an acknowledgment of what Juneteenth actually meant for a particular group of enslaved people who were being treated literally as non-human.”

Gannon said he will observe Juneteenth by committing to making the day one of reflection. He has also committed himself to featuring African American voices more prominently in a class he teaches on the Civil War era. It’s a way for him, Gannon said, to acknowledge a unique moment in U.S. history.

“I think, in general, what people who look like me can do is to think hard about the type of country that we say we are, and that we want to be,” he said. “Think about why it’s taken this long until we could actually have an official commemoration of the end of enslavement. If these are the ideas that we supposedly embrace, why hasn’t this been a thing before? And sit with the tensions that you might feel about it. If we want the holiday to mean something, then we have to be willing, especially as white people, to really commit to thinking about how we can actually change things instead of just using symbolic platitudes as an off-ramp to real meaningful work.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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