President Joe Biden’s signing into law of a measure making June 19 a federal holiday in 2021 came on the heels of the 2020 racial justice upheavals that followed the murder of George Floyd. June 19 had long been a time to more informally celebrate the news of (belated) liberation from slavery reaching black Americans in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865.
It seems that almost overnight, the law establishing June 19 as National Independence Day, June 19, transformed the day from a Texas-based African-American celebration into a national symbol of the lingering need for confront a long denied history of racial slavery and its afterlife. The story of Major General Gordon Granger announcing the hard-won black path to citizenship and dignity has become a metaphor for America in 2020, weighed down by a pandemic and rocked by protests demanding an end to structural racism in the aftermath. Floyd’s murder.
Along with other writers, scholars, historians and cultural workers, I have found hope in the renewed interest in black history that has accompanied both the protests and the Juneteenth uplift. on a federal holiday. One manifestation of this hope for positive change has been the proliferation of bestselling books focusing on black history, including “The New Jim Crow,” a history of mass incarceration by Michelle Alexander.
In this context, Juneteenth has become more than just part of the national conversation about efforts to achieve racial justice in America. The story behind Juneteenth served as an important aspect of a larger impetus that many felt to do far-reaching soul-searching.
These efforts were visible among sports leagues proclaiming Black Lives Matter, elected officials marching with BLM protesters and curators of museums and popular culture and everyday Americans finally acknowledging the depth and breadth of systemic racism. The entire nation seemed chastised by the summer of unrest and inspired to do the personal and political work to bring about long overdue change.
Yet Black History Month took place in 2022 alongside a series of laws deliberately designed to prevent the teaching of this history and the lessons it imparts. In Florida, a bill to prevent “psychological distress” of white students and teachers when teaching stories related to systemic racism passed in April.
In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin successfully exploited the invented controversy over the so-called “critical race theory” (CRT) to become governor as the state banned the teaching of parts of American history now deemed too dangerous to share with young people. CRT critics have weaponized white outrage at the expense of black parents whose views and voices have been shut out of public debate in a case that has further amplified the nation’s racial divide.
The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was more like a popular cousin to the GOP’s organized legislative backlash. This violent attack on the United States Capitol echoed and reiterated the politics of white supremacy of the Reconstruction era, where baseless allegations of voter fraud helped rationalize the violent killing of black people and their supporters.
Congressional hearings in 1871 led to the passage of anti-Klan legislation, but such policies were rarely, if ever, enforced, leading to large-scale attacks on black political power that culminated in the coup white political statehood of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina.
The January 6 hearings, with their dramatic tale of a US president bent on breaking the rule of law by inventing conspiracy theories about voter fraud, are a perfect example of why Juneteenth is so important. More than 100 GOP primary winners have touted former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election as successful primary wins, according to the Washington Post.
The hearings provide a stark portrait of one of the most disturbing episodes in American history, the repercussions of which threaten democracy at its very heart. The mistrust sown, exploited, and weaponized by Trump and the GOP is rooted in fear, anxiety, and anger about black citizenship, particularly the legitimacy of black voting power — a threat that first emerged times after June 19 with the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments.
June 19, 2022 matters more than ever. So far, we’ve only scratched the surface of what this holiday potentially allows all Americans to explore. I grew up listening to stories of Juneteenth in New York from Black Texan transplants in the Big Apple. They made me understand, for the first time, the intimate links between the past and the present.
As a federal holiday, Juneteenth now offers Americans a window to understand just how personal politics is. Black people who bled for democracy – during and after the Civil War, through generations of racial injustice during a century of Jim Crow-style racial segregation, heroically fighting in world wars, protesting on the fields of national battles for civil rights – are as crucial to our national history as heroes of the American Revolution. Their legacies surround us, opening up a deeper faith in democratic values and America’s history than the forces that would have us bury the past in order to control the future.
For now, the extraordinary and ongoing crisis of race and democracy in America shows no signs of abating. The stories that are suppressed by GOP legislation are, in fact, deeply American.
The best example of patriotism is not a sanitized version of American history, popularized after the Civil War in the “lost cause” nostalgia that redefined a war to end slavery as a battle for rights of states – glossing over racial violence, greed, and exploitation of black labor in favor of more sepia-toned images of an American pastoral landscape that, in fact, never really existed.
Yet the very fact that America officially commemorates June 19 is still a promising, albeit fragile, sign of racial progress. The first holiday in the nation’s history that directly counts with racial slavery and the contribution of blacks to American freedom, Juneteenth serves as an annual reminder of the enormous power and potential of a multiracial democracy that remains to many ways as heavy in our time as it was during Reconstruction.
As the nation prepares, in just four short years, to celebrate 250 years of independence, it is worth remembering that June 19, as much as July 4, represents the true anniversary of American democracy.