The Juneteenth celebration, commemorating the day the last slaves in the U.S. were freed in Texas, carries more gravity this year in the context of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
Today, 155 years after enslaved people were freed, African Americans remain enslaved by a system of racism, prejudice and injustice in a land that pledges a democracy with “liberty and justice for all.”
The June 19th celebration marks the day Union General Gordon Granger freed the enslaved people from Galveston Island, Texas, where 250,000 enslaved people lived after slaveholders fled the Civil War in the South.
And we’ve been a little late to the Juneteenth celebration. Texas first made Juneteenth an official holiday in 1980. Minnesota, Florida and Oklahoma established the holiday in the 1990s. Most of the other states set the holiday after the year 2000. North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii are the only states that don’t recognize the day.
The inattention to the holiday reflects our inattention to the issue.
But the freedom won by enslaved people and granted by President Abraham Lincoln and the Congress in passing the 13th Amendment should be considered paramount to our celebration of U.S. democracy and independence.
While the American Revolution was fought to combat “taxation without representation,” slavery was defeated to combat life without freedom, a much more fundamental pillar of our democracy.
Maybe we don’t celebrate Juneteenth like we celebrate the 4th of July because the whole of American society — our ancestors — were guilty of perpetrating a system of cruelty and imprisonment on a people we earlier described as part of the group known as “all men created equal.”
Slavery was an affront to our earlier vow in the Declaration of Independence that those “created equal” were also “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among those being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
So Juneteenth is a time for African Americans to celebrate. It’s a time for the rest of us to ask forgiveness.