Juneteenth Is a Celebration for Everyone
A lot of people celebrated Juneteenth before the summer of 2021, but President Joe Biden last year declaring it a national holiday pushed this celebration of slavery’s end into a much bigger spotlight. And Americans seem to still be struggling with what Juneteenth celebrations should mean.
Juneteenth—”America’s other Independence Day“—marks the day in 1865 when enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas, learned that the Civil War had ended and they were officially free. Major General Gordon Granger delivered the news—some two months after the end of the Civil War and two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ever quick to capitalize on new marketing opportunities, a lot of businesses are now launching Juneteenth-related merchandise, promotions, and events—and kicking off debate about whether this is merely eye roll–inducing or outright crass and wrong.
Meanwhile, states are still divided on whether government offices should be shut down on Juneteenth and whether public workers should get a paid holiday. “This year, nearly 20 states are expected to close state offices and give most of their public employees time off,” notes NPR. “At least six states officially adopted the holiday over the past few months, including Connecticut, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, South Dakota, Utah and Washington.” Other state proposals to do the same have failed, including in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Nonetheless, parades, concerts, and other events have been started in cities across the U.S., including many that formerly did not mark the occasion. This is giving more Americans than ever the opportunity to learn about and honor Juneteenth.
But aside from the basic history of the day, what should Americans learn and honor? Is this a day for black Americans—and black Americans only—to celebrate? For white Americans to reflect on and repent for predecessors’ transgressions (or at least buy stuff from black-owned businesses)? For everyone to come together and appreciate how far the country has come? On social media, these questions have been a matter of hot debate.
Juneteenth isn’t just for Black people. If you believe slavery was wrong then you should celebrate the end of slavery.
— Touré (@Toure) June 15, 2022
An underlying question is whether Juneteenth is a day to condemn America of yore for its wrongs, or a time to praise its ability to course-correct.
“Juneteenth is more than a holiday. It is not just a commemoration of the end of slavery. It is a day that celebrates America’s incredible capacity to self-correct by applying the timeless principles at our country’s core,” the woman known as “the grandmother of Juneteenth,” Opal Lee, writes in a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with Baptist pastor DeForest “Buster” Soaries.
In the op-ed, they worry that Juneteenth celebrations will “fall prey to the division and distraction that are tearing America down” when, “by all rights, Juneteenth should be a day of great unity.” They suggest that “Juneteenth asks Americans to recognize that our nation’s principles are neither grossly hypocritical nor naively aspirational. We have inherited lofty yet practical ideals, and it falls to us to implement them as best we can,”
“Juneteenth ain’t a Black thing, not a Texas thing. It’s about freedom for everybody,” Lee told Time.
“Juneteenth is a civic reminder to pause and appreciate how far the nation has come,” writes Theodore R. Johnson of the Brennan Center for Justice. “If Independence Day on July 4th is a day to honor all the nation got right, Juneteenth is a call to always right the things it gets wrong.”
Some activists are taking the day to remind Americans about wrongs the country is still perpetuating, including incarcerated people being forced to work for little or no pay.
The “End the Exception” campaign aims to put a stop to this. “People who are incarcerated and detained across our country are disproportionately Black and brown and forced to work for little to no pay under the threat of additional punitive measures, such as the loss of family visits and solitary confinement,” states its website.
We’re getting ready to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday marking the end of slavery, but was it? No. An exception in the 13th Amendment still allows slavery as punishment for crime, subjecting over a million to slavery. Tell Congress to #EndTheException at https://t.co/SSuXKubcjw! pic.twitter.com/5g3MpInmf7
— Worth Rises (@WorthRises) June 15, 2022
A new American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report called “Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers” explores prison labor practices in the U.S.
“From the moment they enter the prison gates, incarcerated people lose the right to refuse to work,” notes the ACLU. “This is because the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against slavery and involuntary servitude, explicitly excludes from its reach those held in confinement due to a criminal conviction. The roots of modern prison labor can be found in the ratification of this exception clause at the end of the Civil War, which disproportionately encouraged the criminalization and effective re-enslavement of Black people during the Jim Crow era, with impacts
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