This year’s Juneteenth has taken on an additional significance after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery reignited the fight for Black equality. Americans are petitioning for it to be a federal holiday, while some companies are already giving their staff paid-time off in observation of the day.
It’s a big enough deal for President Donald Trump to claim that he’s made the historic anniversary “famous.” Of course, he didn’t.
Juneteenth stretches back through presidencies, winding through generations of institutional and systemic racism to June 19, 1865, the day when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger finally made it to Galveston, Texas, to tell enslaved people they were free.
This was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation effectively did the same thing when it was issued on Jan. 1, 1863, but news traveled slowly to the Confederacy’s western edges, further hampered by the Civil War. Two months after the war ended, Granger and his troops finally made it out west to deliver General Order No. 3, the announcement that informed the enslaved of their new legal status:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
The formerly enslaved didn’t actually have “absolute equality” in practice, though. They faced immediate violence from former slave owners and Confederate sympathizers if they tried to act on their freedom. Even after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and various forms of state-backed discrimination reinforced the message that Black Americans didn’t have the same rights and basic liberties as white Americans.
Yet, Juneteenth celebrations did spread, rolling from Texas into the rest of the country even as reality for Black Americans was a far cry from the liberation the day promised.
“[B]y the time World War II shook the nation,” said historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., “they could no longer faithfully celebrate freedom in a land that still rendered them second-class citizens worthy of dying for their country but not worthy of being honored or treated equally for it.”
Juneteenth regained momentum just as Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. His Poor People’s Campaign settled on June 19th for its Solidarity Day Rally. The event sought to raise awareness of the economic plight of many Americans, and holding it on that day connected that fight to Juneteenth’s theme of liberation. Attendees took the day’s significance to their hometown, but it wasn’t until 1980 when Texas became the first state to recognize it as a holiday.
“Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations,” said Texas State Rep. Al Edwards, who introduced the Juneteenth bill in 1979. “That’s why we need this holiday.”
Edwards died on April 29, just days before video of Arbery’s shooting was published online. The recent spate of deaths caused by America’s racism against Black bodies makes this year’s Juneteenth more urgent because they recontextualize the past. Because it’s one thing to tell people they’re free, and it’s another to treat them as if they are. Black Americans have more of a stake in this democracy 155 years after Granger’s journey, and they’re using that today to openly challenge the systems that have refused to grant them their absolute equality.
Cover: A man looks at the Juneteenth sticker on his t-shirt during a demonstration to ask for the removal of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in front of the Hall of Justice, in Los Angeles, California, on June 17, 2020. (Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)