The Joy in Juneteenth

In the 1860s, news traveled slowly. There was no Twitter, no 24-hour cable news, no talk radio. For many enslaved people on the Western Frontier, news of their emancipation arrived months late. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 officially outlawed slavery in Texas, but its effectiveness reached only as far as Union soldiers could advance.

After the April 1865 surrender at Appomattox, it took Union soldiers almost two months to travel to Galveston, Texas, where Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger announced General Order 3 on June 19, 1865, officially ending slavery in the state.

This week, (on June 15) almost 156 years later, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Many received the breaking news alert almost immediately, as a push notification on their iPhone.

Within a day, the U.S. House would also pass this legislation, and it received President Biden’s signature Thursday.  Juneteenth is now one of 12 official federal holidays.

In the nearly 160 years since emancipation, much has been done and undone in the enduring quest for a more perfect union. This week’s action to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday goes beyond a simple symbolic gesture: It’s a measure bringing us closer to that ideal union and official recognition that the freedom enshrined in our Constitution has not always belonged to all of our brothers and sisters.

Juneteenth has been celebrated, in some form or another, since the late 1800s. Originally started as small, church-centered community celebrations, Juneteenth saw a rapid rise in popularity throughout the 1920s and ’30s, and the civil rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s reframed Juneteenth as a celebration of freedom and the arts.

Texas was the first state to officially recognize the holiday in 1970, and today all but three states have some official recognition. It’s by no means a “new” holiday, but it is one that many of us will participate in for the first time as it joins the list of official federal holidays.

Regardless of how much you may or may not know about Juneteenth, any freedom-minded American should find joy in a day officially dedicated to commemorating the liberation of a people from slavery. There is nothing so profoundly, so quintessentially American, as the celebration of obtaining freedom.

But that celebration comes with a responsibility to protect and advance that freedom. The recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday does not address the regulatory and structural barriers that many Black Americans face. There is still much work to be done toward advancing meaningful criminal justice reform, furthering access to options for education and righting historical problems in zoning and housing regulation.

These are just a few of the steps forward that we can take toward extending the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all of America’s citizens. Juneteenth is a celebration of how far we’ve come – and should be a somber reminder of how far we have yet to go.

This weekend is time for both reflection and rejoicing. It’s a time to celebrate progress made, opportunity shared and challenges conquered, as well as an opportunity to look forward to the road ahead and create an honest accounting of the ways we can join together to seek an ever more perfect, more equitable and more just union.

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