President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday a bill making June 19 a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery but not everyone sees it as progress closing the racial divide keeping Americans apart. Members of the Project 21 black leadership network – which has used the anniversary as an opportunity to encourage other black Americans to celebrate their liberty and self-sufficiency in a nation that offers unlimited opportunities for two decades – said the effort may distract attention from the real problems the black community faces daily.
“Far too many Americans, regardless of their ethnic background, are unfamiliar with Juneteenth. The blessing of liberty was irrevocably granted on June 19, 1865, to those who remained enslaved in Texas, not knowing they had been freed more than two years earlier. For them, this was their declaration of freedom,” said Project 21 member Derryck Green. “While I am agnostic on a national holiday, I don’t want the commemoration hijacked by racial activists who would use it as another tool to demonize white Americans under the pretense of racial justice. As we’ve seen since last summer, this has been destructive to the American experiment.”
The bill, which was passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday after a unanimous vote in the Senate, commemorates the June 19, 1865, arrival of Union troops in Galveston, Texas who brought with them news the Civil War had ended, and that President Lincoln had abolished slavery throughout the Confederacy two-and-a-half years earlier through the Emancipation Proclamation.
Galveston’s former slave population began celebrating its freedom annually on the anniversary of this day. “Juneteenth” grew to become a motivating and stabilizing commemoration for black Texans experiencing the uncertainties associated with their newfound freedom and full integration into American society.
“Juneteenth is already everything but a national holiday since 47 states, local governments, and even private companies recognize it,” said Project 21 member Martin Baker. “Juneteenth was an acknowledgment of the Emancipation Proclamation, which history tells us only applied to the states in rebellion. If we want to celebrate an all-encompassing ‘Freedom Day,’ perhaps we should choose December 6 – the anniversary of when the 13th Amendment was ratified.”
During the debate over establishing the new holiday, some lawmakers raised concerns about its cost. Members of Project 21 however, said they were more concerned whether its creation would be politicized. For example, Senator Ed Markey said when introducing the Juneteenth holiday legislation: “Today we commemorate. Tomorrow, we fight.”
“It is surprising the number of black Americans – let alone all Americans – who are not yet aware” of Juneteenth’s significance, Project 21’s Marie Fischer said. “But to make this a federal holiday is not something I feel is in the best interests of the country, especially now,” she continued before going on to question whether it would help bring the nation together.
“I constantly hear everyone talking about unity, but would a federal holiday end up being a unifier? Or would it give fuel to those who support critical race theory by pointing out a day that marks one group as an oppressor and another as the oppressed? Such a holiday could be easily hijacked by those who insist that blacks only advance when it benefits white elites. Nothing seems to get pushed these days unless it fits a specific narrative,” Fischer said.
“Juneteenth should prompt us not just to take inventory of how far we’ve come, but also realize that – despite the racialized claims of ‘white supremacy’ or ‘systemic racism’ – blacks have the agency and ability to control our own lives,” Green added. “This includes becoming full participants in society.”
The law establishing “Juneteenth” as an officially recognized federal holiday comes roughly a year after the nation was rocked by violent protests following the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a Minneapolis police officer. It will be the eleventh such day, joining a list that includes Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Independence Day, explorer Christopher Columbus and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.