On 17 June 2021, President Joe Biden signed a law that made Juneteenth a federal holiday, the first new national holiday since the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1983. But there has been debate on whether this is appropriate.
What is Juneteenth?
In June 1865, Major General Gordon Granger – along with over 1,800 federal troops – arrived in Galvestone, Texas. This was to take control of the state and ensure freedom for the last remaining slaves in the area, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. This meant that 250,000 enslaved people only learnt of their freedom on 19 June 1865, due to the last battle of the Civil War taking place two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
By 1866, formerly enslaved Black Texans began celebrating the day with annual “Jubilee Day” festivities, but it took until 1980 for Texas to become the first state to recognise Juneteenth as a paid holiday. The day has helped in raising awareness of ongoing issues facing Black Americans, including the political fight for reparations to the descendants of victims of slavery. It is now celebrated annually throughout the US but has only become more mainstream in recent decades, and only a few states previously observed it as a paid holiday.
Celebrations faded with the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, it has regained popularity
More than 200 official events commemorate Juneteenth in cities and towns across the US and the world. Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Buffalo have the country’s three largest annual festivals. Because it is a communal holiday, the day often involves cookouts and barbequing – especially with red food and drink. Adrian Miller explains that red symbolises the blood shed by enslaved ancestors. Red drinks also link to the hibiscus drinks and cola that were carried across the Atlantic by enslaved people.
The Marcus Garvey salad has also become popular, named after the Black activist who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Traditional songs also tend to be played, educational history lessons taught and the Emancipation Proclamation read.
Although celebrations faded with the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, it has regained popularity in recent years. The day became more poignant in light of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests. Last year, companies such as Nike, Twitter, and Uber announced plans to begin observing the date with a national holiday. Other companies including Amazon and Google encouraged employees to cancel meetings to use the day for learning and reflection.
Juneteenth as a federal holiday
Attempts to make Juneteenth a federal holiday stretch back to when Barack Obama was a senator for Illinois. He co-sponsored legislation to make it a national holiday but the law was never passed – not even after he became president.
[Celebrating Juneteenth] will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants
– Senator Ed Markey
The current bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent and passed through the House of Representatives by a landslide in a 415 to 14 vote. This was after being championed for years by Black legislators in Congress, led by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee. It gained momentum since the Black Lives Matter protests last year, and the Democrats’ takeover of the White House and Congress.
The measure was sponsored by Senator Ed Markey and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of 60 senators. Markey said that this bill “will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants, and finally celebrate their freedom”.
President Biden said: “This is a really, really important moment in American history. By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history and celebrate our progress.”
Senator Ron Johnson, who opposed the bill in 2020, explained that while it is “clear there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter”, he still has doubt: “Although I strongly support celebrating Emancipation, I objected to the cost and lack of debate.” He argued that it “seems strange” that “having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery”. The basis of his previous objection was similar, as he thought giving the day off for federal employees would cost US taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Why should Juneteenth be a federal holiday?
Americans are more supportive of teaching the history of the day rather than making it a federal holiday
Public opinion, however, seems to favour the bill. A poll by The Harris Poll found that just over half of Americans said they knew about Juneteenth and two-thirds support making it a holiday, including 84% of Black people and African Americans. A more recent Gallup poll found similar results, with 35% of Americans thinking that Juneteenth should be made a federal holiday compared to only 25% saying it shouldn’t. 40%, however, are unsure, suggesting that more needs to be done to increase the awareness of this day.
Americans are more supportive of teaching the history of the day rather than making it a federal holiday, with almost half saying it should be added to public schools’ history curriculum. The lack of awareness was highlighted by Courtney Newell, a marketing and communications expert, who said that many learned about Juneteenth through the TV show Black-ish, with the series devoting its 2017 season premiere to the holiday that is often not taught in schools. Nevertheless, there have been petitions to make Juneteenth a national holiday, such as one started in 2019 on Change.org that has more than 278,000 signatures.
In favour of making Juneteenth a national holiday, Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, described Juneteenth as “a unifying holiday” and said, “it is the completion of the celebration of freedom in America”.
Rick Wade, Vice President of Strategic Alliance and Outreach at the US Chamber of Commerce, said “it is a very defining date in our country’s history, the meaning, the observance of that this year is a lot more impactful and necessary that we all engage in this reflection”.
Why are some against it being a federal holiday?
However, some debate has arisen about the date’s relevance. Since Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply to border states that were still in the Union at the time, slaves in such states weren’t liberated until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on 18th December 1865 – nearly six months later. Furthermore, slavery still existed after this, with the 13th Amendment in 1865 making slavery illegal “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.
At the end of the day, what black people want is equality. A holiday is just a show
– Niambi Carter, political scientist at Howard University
Douglas A. Blackmon, a journalist and professor at Georgia State University’s Creative Media Industries Institute, claims that this led to Southern lawmakers criminalising much of Black Americans’ existence. He wrote that “tens of thousands of Black people were charged and forced to labor for counties, white-owned business and white landowners”. Full emancipation, he claims, didn’t come until the 1960s.
Some see the celebratory nature of the holiday as inappropriate – instead viewing it as a day of sorrow or remembrance for those who never saw freedom. Maranda York, for example, described the holiday as a painful reminder of “Texas being last to consider [her] humanity”. She adds that “it’s disrespectful to our history to not recognize that we weren’t all free until December of that year, according to our constitution”, especially as plantation owners in Texas often hid the news of freedom following the Emancipation Proclamation.
In contrast, Dr Lopez Matthews argues that dismissing the joyous nature of Juneteenth celebrations in which former slaves participated diminishes their important role in the fight for freedom. “It takes away from the agency of African Americans who were freed, who recovered, built their own communities, institutions and their own societies that were then destroyed by the institution of racism that slavery left.”
Further criticism is given to whether such legislation is appropriate at the moment. Niambi Carter, a political scientist at Howard University, said: “At the end of the day, what black people want is equality. A holiday is just a show.” She contrasted the passing of this legislation with some states’ attempts to ban the teaching of critical race theory, saying that “you can’t create the holiday and then refuse to talk about how black people got here.”
Similarly, despite George Floyd’s murder being attributed to the passing of the law, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act – which aims at increasing accountability in law enforcement – has stalled in the Senate. This led Brea Baker, vice-president of politics and programmes for advocacy group Inspire Justice, to say that: “It’s hypocritical to say ‘Yes, we honour this day of black liberation’ and not be committed to black liberation in the 21st-century context. We don’t have any substantive legislation addressing the things that are actually keeping a lot of people figuratively and very literally not free.”
Biden reflects this view when he said: “The truth is, it’s… simply not enough just to commemorate Juneteenth. After all, the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning.”