By Carolyn Riley-Payne, President, Seattle King County NAACP
With the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act last year, the Juneteenth holiday has now been officially extended across the nation. Already accepted by most states, it has still not yet become part of the consciousness of many Americans. And that’s a pity, as the honoring of Juneteenth at the national level provides a much-needed opportunity for everyone to reflect on our country’s past, honestly examine the realities of our present and plan for a future that leaves behind the shackles of the past.
Originating as ‘Jubilee Day’ shortly after word of the Emancipation Proclamation arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 (and over two years after the proclamation had been signed), the name of the holiday evolved to ‘Juneteenth’ gradually in the late nineteenth century and became commonly used in the early twentieth. Primarily celebrated by African Americans in Southern states, the holiday moved North and West with the Great Migration.
Though celebrations of Juneteenth have been observed continuously since 1867, its popularity ebbed and surged over the years, growing dimmer during Jim Crow and emerging strong again in the twenty-first century. As states continued to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday after 2000 momentum grew for national recognition, and the law making that so made its way quickly through both chambers and to the President’s desk in June 2021. Now a national holiday, the existence of the law has strengthened the position of states already honoring Juneteenth and challenged those who previously ignored it to come to a reckoning of the history they have previously ignored – and, hopefully, the work they have yet to accomplish.
The mood of most national holidays is festive, celebratory. Juneteenth has some of that tone as well, but it also requires elements of introspection that are not commonly part of the atmosphere surrounding our other holidays. More than a recognition of an event in history, Juneteenth asks us to consider the conditions leading to the need for emancipation in 1865, the progress (and failures) of efforts to make real the words of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment to the Constitution, and our need to continue the struggle for freedom into the future. More than other national holidays, Juneteenth is aspirational, unrealized – it acknowledges the past while recognizing that the work is far from complete. As historian Mitch Kachun said, Juneteenth is an event “to celebrate, to educate, and to agitate.”
Marking the day as a national holiday will help the majority of Americans to understand the real meaning of Juneteenth and ensure that it is embedded into the cultural understanding of all. Juneteenth needs to take its rightful place in our public conversation, in the telling of history and as a guidepost for future planning and action. It must be integrated into the fabric of all American culture – not just African American culture. It must be recognized both as a rejection of the moral stain of slavery and the need for continued work towards true freedom, now and in the future.
African Americans should continue to celebrate Juneteenth as they always have – as a gathering with food, friends and conversation. Juneteenth should be a time of reflection, outreach and service for everyone. Part of that reflection should be an examination of how our speech, our laws, our customs and our actions continue to uphold oppressions from the past. We all have some role in perpetuating these iniquities. We should commit to a lifelong process of education and personal change to address them.
The African American community has seen these oppressions firsthand. Our community’s lived experience should be accepted now; it was not accepted in the past. But beyond talk and celebration we must be bold in our approach to the solutions. As NAACP President Derrick Johnson has said, “…hope must be driven by outcome.” Juneteenth should be more than just another event in the year – it must become a marker of our progress in achieving true freedom.
“Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory or an acceptance of the way things are. It’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible—and there is still so much work to do.” — Barack Obama