Why making Juneteenth a US national holiday matters

Marking the day that slavery ended in the US reminds us how the country failed to live up to its ideals – and of the battles still to be won. 

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This year, for the first time, Juneteenth is a US national holiday. President Joe Biden, who signed a bill establishing it as such, called it “one of the greatest honours” of his presidency, adding that “great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments... They embrace them.”

Juneteenth – or 19 June – marks the end of slavery in the United States. On 19 June 1865, slavery was finally abolished in the state of Texas. President Abraham Lincoln had outlawed slavery in 1862, but, since Texas had seceded from the Union to fight with the Confederacy for the right to continue to own and exploit humans as property, slavery didn’t end in Texas until Major General Gordon Granger of the Union led soldiers to Galveston, Texas to announce that the war was over, the Union had won, and it would be enforcing the end of slavery.

In truth, slavery continued in the US for a while longer. In Kentucky – which originally declared itself neutral, but ultimately fought alongside the Union – slavery essentially continued until the ratification of the 13th amendment to the constitution, which stated that slavery would not exist within the US. But Juneteenth still marks the evolution of the Emancipation Proclamation from a presidential statement to law. 

It does something else, too: it reminds us that justice does not simply come with the swipe of a pen or with US presidents announcing that we’ve transcended our past. From the country’s earliest days – even before it was a country – the gulf between its ideals and its practices has been huge. All men are created equal, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. In his lifetime, he owned 607 people. Jefferson inherited 52 from his father and 135 from his father-in-law. The man who brought macaroni and cheese, now a classic American soul and comfort food, to the US is now believed to have been James Hemings, Jefferson’s slave chef, whom Jefferson took to France to train to cook him fine meals while he mused about freedom and equality.

It took roughly three years for the abolition of slavery to make it from the president’s desk to Texas. For over 200 years and counting, this country has had difficulty admitting that America did not live up to the ideals of its founders. 

Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is one small way to address this. It is helpful to democracy to have Americans learn and understand all of their history, both the glory and the gore. It is significant that Biden, who succeeded a president whose administration issued a report that sought to whitewash the US’s history, has declared that Americans should learn about their country’s past, not flinch from it. (Last year, Trump considered holding a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the location of the 1921 race riots that decimated the city’s black population, on Juneteenth. After this was met with outrage, he delayed the rally by a day.)

Even so, the significance of making Juneteenth a federal holiday should not be overstated. Doing so would only repeat the mistakes of the past: confusing the signing of a piece of paper with actual, tangible change. Acknowledging the day is a nice start, but it doesn’t redress the racial wealth gap, it doesn’t challenge state voting laws that will disproportionately impact black Americans and it doesn’t keep black people from being shot and killed by police officers. 

It’s good that Juneteenth is a federal holiday. It’s important that we learn our history. But we need to do so not only to better understand the present but to change it, and reshape the future. 

There were three years between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth. How many will there be between Biden signing this bill into law and significant progress toward racial justice in America?

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. 

She co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review

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