Juneteenth: A Complex Celebration of Freedom and Unfulfilled Promises


By Chad Davis from United States — George Floyd Square, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=103413752

Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19th, marks a significant moment in American history—the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom. Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of slavery, not based on the South’s defeat in the Civil War, but on the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln over two years earlier. However, this day, now heralded as “Freedom Day,” holds a more nuanced and critical history that extends beyond the celebrations.

When General Granger declared the end of slavery, his announcement came with a caveat. The enslaved people were advised to “remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” This directive effectively meant that those who had been enslaved were to continue working on the same plantations under their former masters, now as paid laborers—if they were lucky. This proclamation underscored a bitter irony: despite the formal end of slavery, true freedom and equality were still distant dreams for many.

 The Reality of “Freedom Day”

Despite being freed on paper, the lives of many African Americans in Texas did not change overnight. The state quickly enacted Black Codes, laws designed to maintain white supremacy and control over Black labor. These laws required Black people to sign labor contracts that often mimicked the conditions of slavery. Those who did not comply could be arrested and leased out to plantations, perpetuating a system of forced labor under a new guise.

Granger’s General Order №3, while proclaiming equality, also explicitly forbade freedmen from seeking support from military posts or congregating idly, implying they should not expect government assistance. This directive can be seen as a historical parallel to the modern-day dismissal of Black struggles with phrases like “shut up and dribble.”

The Long Road to Recognition

The journey to making Juneteenth a federal holiday was long and winding. Although first introduced in Congress by Barbara-Rose Collins (D-MI) in 1997, it took over two decades and relentless advocacy, notably by Opal Lee, to achieve national recognition. Lee, known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” tirelessly campaigned for the holiday, symbolically walking 2.5 miles each year to represent the 2.5 years it took for the news of freedom to reach Texas.

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent global protests against racial injustice brought renewed focus to the significance of Juneteenth. Amid these widespread demands for systemic change, the federal government moved swiftly to declare Juneteenth a national holiday. On June 15, 2021, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, with the House following suit, and President Joe Biden signed it into law on June 17, 2021.

A Symbolic Gesture Amidst Unmet Promises

While the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a victory for recognition and remembrance, it also serves as a stark reminder of the unfulfilled promises of true equality and justice. The protests following George Floyd’s death called for substantial changes, including the elimination of qualified immunity for police officers and increased funding for mental health services. However, these demands largely remain unmet, with many political leaders opting for symbolic gestures over substantive policy changes.

The rapid passage of the Juneteenth holiday can be seen as a strategic move to placate public outcry without addressing the deeper systemic issues at play. It is a celebration of freedom that, for many, still feels incomplete as long as racial disparities and injustices persist.

Moving Forward

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, providing an opportunity for reflection and education on the long and ongoing struggle for Black liberation in America. However, its establishment should not be the end but rather a step towards achieving the true freedom and equality promised but never fully realized since 1865. The fight for justice continues, and the spirit of Juneteenth calls on all to remember that the journey toward equality is far from over.

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