Senate passes bill by unanimous consent to make Juneteenth a national holiday

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From Yahoo News:

The Senate passed a bill Tuesday to establish Juneteenth, the day marking the end of slavery in the United States, as a national holiday.

After passing by unanimous consent, the bill now heads to the House of Representatives, where its passage is all but assured, then on to President Biden’s desk for signature into law.

Celebrated on June 19, Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, recognizes and marks the emancipation of formerly enslaved African Americans, commemorating the date in 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom.

As discussed further by CNN:

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas, the end of slavery in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1980, Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday. In the decades since, every state but South Dakota came to officially commemorate Juneteenth, but only a handful of states observe it as a paid holiday.

As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, predominantly of the same generation of folks who now control most of the levers of power in this country, I can assure you that the significance of this date was not a subject that made its way into my public school.

Clint Smith, writing for the Atlantic, reflected on the meaning of that omission and many other selective and long-popularized omissions and distortions about the motivations of the old Confederacy, in particular the perception that those who fought on the Confederate side had no personal stake in slavery, as most were young, poor and uneducated, and did not personally own slaves. Thus, as the legend has it, the war could not have really been “about” slavery. In an article titled Why Confederate Lies Live On,”  Smith directs us to the research that essentially refutes this misconception:

[T]he historian Joseph T. Glatthaar has challenged that argument. He analyzed the makeup of the unit that would become Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and pointed out that “the vast majority of the volunteers of 1861 had a direct connection to slavery.” Almost half either owned enslaved people or lived with a head of household who did, and many more worked for slaveholders, rented land from them, or had business relationships with them.

Many white southerners who did not own enslaved people were deeply committed to preserving the institution. The historian James Oliver Horton wrote about how the press inundated white southerners with warnings that, without slavery, they would be forced to live, work, and inevitably procreate with their free Black neighbors.

The Louisville Daily Courier, for example, warned nonslaveholding white southerners about the slippery slope of abolition: “Do they wish to send their children to schools in which the negro children of the vicinity are taught? Do they wish to give the negro the right to appear in the witness box to testify against them?” The paper threatened that Black men would sleep with white women and “amalgamate together the two races in violation of God’s will.”

Smith was interviewed by Boston’s NPR affiliate, WBUR, about that article and the subject of Juneteenth. In that interview Smith explains why a more visceral understanding by Americans of the colossal magnitude of slavery in this country has been curtailed (so to speak) by a tendency to focus solely on those few celebrated and heroic individuals, such as Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass, who rebelled against it, spoke against it, or otherwise managed to escape its grasp. He hopes that the commemoration of Juneteenth will provide a greater perspective on the individual struggles against slavery that have tended to be left unmentioned in this somewhat limited perspective.

Some of his remarks:

“I think that reminding ourselves and using Juneteenth as an occasion to remind ourselves that resistance was not just the massive rebellions or the dramatic acts of running away, but it was the small things and it was people carving out aspirations and carving out a community in the face of circumstances that we just couldn’t imagine today.”


“There is a sense of personal accountability in which I believe it is important for people to look around and consider not only in the context of race or in the context of slavery, but in the context of gender, in the context of sexual orientation, in the context of immigration and the history of imperialism, in the context of all of the myriad of things that affect our world, our society, our lives today. People carry a level of personal responsibility in which one should look around and consider what they don’t know and attempt to learn more about the forces that have shaped what our society looks like today. At the same time, I do think that we should recognize that there has been a generations-long, often state-sanctioned effort to prevent people from learning about so much of this stuff. And it’s a shame.”

As the Republican Party assumes and embraces the mantle of the old Confederacy more boldly and brazenly with every passing day, as its adherents and right-wing media mouthpieces strike out with one hand against the teachings of “critical race theory” (a concept which few if any of their supporters actually understand), while spinning new and improved schemes of voter suppression with the other, Smith’s words serve as a reminder that in this country, on questions of race, the past never seems to get past anything but prologue. And it’s admittedly difficult to fathom why after 150 years this country is still being forced to reckon with the historical scourge of slavery as the singular, over-arching legacy governing its continued political and social existence.

But perhaps that’s just a testament to how monumentally and unforgivably evil that institution actually was. 

As Smith notes:

What I think most about when I think about Juneteenth is how there were millions of people across generations who are fighting to end this institution but never got to see the end of it. And they fought for the end of slavery and knew that they might never have the opportunity to see it for themselves. But they knew that somebody someday would. And I think that that’s the frame that we should that I at least take into so many of the problems that we see in our society. It’s like, well, you know, we are working to end mass incarceration. We are working to end poverty or we are working to end all these horrific things, not necessarily because we think we will see the end of it ourselves, but because we know that someday someone will, as long as each of us continue to do this work generation after generation after generation.”

We can only hope that the introduction of this holiday in commemoration of June 19th, 1865 will play some part in this country finally acknowledging the destructive history that so many of its people have contorted themselves into accommodating, explaining, justifying and ignoring ever since.

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