Black Americans laud Juneteenth holiday, say more work ahead

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US Vice-President Kamala Harris and Opal Lee (second left), the activist known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, watch as US President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, June 17, 2021, in Washington. Image Credit: AFP

WASHINGTON: Black Americans rejoiced on Thursday after President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday, but some said that, while they appreciated the recognition at a time of racial reckoning in America, more is needed to change policies that disadvantage too many of their brethren.

“It’s great, but it’s not enough,” said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Kansas City. Grant said she was delighted by the quick vote this week by Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday because “it’s been a long time coming.’’

But she added that “we need Congress to protect voting rights, and that needs to happen right now so we don’t regress any further. That is the most important thing Congress can be addressing at this time.’’

12th federal holiday

* Juneteenth is the 12th federal holiday, including Inauguration Day once every four years. It’s also the first federal holiday since the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was added in 1983.

* Before June 19 became a federal holiday, it was observed in the vast majority of states and the District of Columbia. Texas was first to make Juneteenth a holiday in 1980.

* Most white Americans had not heard of Juneteenth before the summer of 2020 and the protests that stirred the nation’s conscience over race after George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer.

At a jubilant White House bill-signing ceremony, Biden agreed that more than a commemoration of the events of June 19, 1865, is needed. That’s when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas _ some 2 1/2 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in Southern states.

“This day doesn’t just celebrate the past. It calls for action today,’’ Biden said before he established Juneteenth National Independence Day. His audience included scores of members of Congress and Opal Lee, a 94-year-old Texas woman who campaigned for the holiday.

Biden singled out voting rights as an area for action.

Republican-led states have enacted or are considering legislation that activists argue would curtail the right to vote, particularly for people of color. Legislation to address voting rights issues, and institute policing reforms demanded after the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men, remains stalled in the Congress that acted swiftly on the Juneteenth bill.

Other people want the federal government to make reparations or financial payments to the descendants of slaves in an attempt to compensate for those wrongs. Meanwhile, efforts are afoot across the country to limit what school districts teach about the history of slavery in America.

Community organizer Kimberly Holmes-Ross, who helped make her hometown of Evanston, Illinois, the first US city to pay reparations, said she was happy about the new federal holiday because it will lead more people to learn about Juneteenth.

But she would have liked Congress to act on anti-lynching legislation or voter protections first.

“I am not super stoked only because all of the other things that are still going on,” said Holmes-Ross, 57. “You haven’t addressed what we really need to talk about.”

‘We need the substance to follow’

Peniel Joseph, an expert on race at the University of Texas at Austin, said the U.S. has never had a holiday or a national commemoration of the end of slavery. Many Black Americans had long celebrated Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth is important symbolically, and we need the substance to follow, but Black people historically have always tried to do multiple things at the same time,” Joseph said.

Most federal workers will observe the holiday on Friday. Several states and the District of Columbia announced that government offices would be closed Friday.

Matthew Delmont, who teaches history at Dartmouth College, said the new federal holiday “hopefully provides a moment on the calendar every year when all Americans can spend time thinking seriously about the history of our country.”

The Senate passed the bill earlier this week by unanimous agreement. But in the House, 14 Republicans voted against it, including Rep. Chip Roy of Texas. Roy said Juneteenth deserves to be commemorated, but he objected to the use of “independence” in the holiday’s name.

“This name needlessly divides our nation on a matter that should instead bring us together by creating a separate Independence Day based on the color of one’s skin,’’ he said in a statement.