Juneteenth is coming

In the midst of a very divided congress that struggles to pass any legislation, the overwhelming vote by both the Senate and the House to make Juneteenth a national holiday came as a bit of a surprise. The effort to establish the holiday has been underway for several years, but Senate rules made it nearly impossible to pass the legislation. A single member of the Senate could block the bill from getting a full vote. However, the long effort to commemorate the day was overwhelmingly passed and the holiday will be established. The act establishes a new holiday for federal workers. It maintains the traditional day of recognition, June 19, unlike some federal holidays that are always observed on a Monday. President Biden is set to sign the bill into law this afternoon.

Most states already have an official observance of Juneteenth. Earlier this year, Governor Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1016 making Juneteenth a paid holiday for state workers in Washington. The bill does not go into effect until 2022, but it will make Washington the fourth state, after Texas, New York, and Virginia to recognize the Juneteenth by giving state employees a paid holiday. Only North Dakota and South Dakota have no official statewide recognition of Juneteenth according to the Congressional Research Service.

I am not aware of a Juneteenth observance in Mount Vernon, but in nearby Bellingham, the celebration will be held at Maritime Heritage Park between 3 and 7 pm on Saturday.

I don’t remember Juneteenth being a part of my formal education as a child. We learned that the salves were freed by the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation and executive order, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, declared “that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free.” I thought that the proclamation ended chapel slavery in the United States. My simple, grade school understanding, however, didn’t reveal the full story.

There were several limits to the Emancipation Proclamation. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States. There were states where slavery was legal that remained loyal to the Union. Furthermore the proclamation expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Finally, the promised freedom was dependent upon a Union Victory, which after three bloody years was far from assured at that point in the war.

Nonetheless, the Emancipation Proclamation was a critical step in a long overdue struggle to end slavery in our country. The movement to end slavery, while supported by abolitionists and religious leaders, really began with actions taken by the slaves themselves. In the Civil War, slaves acted to secure their own liberty. This movement added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically.

It took several years for slavery to be officially ended in our country. Juneteenth marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 - 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation - to take control of the state and to inform the state’s slaves that they had been emancipated. The day was one of celebration and June 19th has been recognized as African American Emancipation Day ever since. Most contemporary celebrations across the nation emphasize education and achievement, with picnics, guest speakers and family gatherings.

The holiday is both a recognition of the past, which has many events worth celebrating, and the acknowledgement that the work of justice and equality is unfinished. On Juneteenth people not only celebrate the end of slavery, but also recognize that systems continue to marginalize and oppress people of color in our country. Dr. Martin Luther King used to frequently quote Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Juneteenth recognizes that the journey towards freedom continues with opportunities to join together with others to make significant and lasting improvements in our society.

Winston Churchill adapted a quote from the Irish statesman Edmund Burke to write, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Recognizing the importance of learning as much as we are able from the mistakes of the past is important. Juneteenth, however, is not just a time to learn about the horrors of slavery and the incredible inhumanity of those who came before us. It is, rather, a celebration of the American spirit to recognize wrong and to work together to make things right. The establishment of a national holiday is yet another opportunity to celebrate our country’s greatness and to work together for justice.

The holiday seems to fit well into the flow of the year. With the coming of summer in the northern hemisphere we celebrate longer days and the approaching solstice. Public schools go on vacation and people engage in a variety of outdoor activities and events. It is a good time to recognize and celebrate freedom. Coming a couple of weeks after Memorial Day and a couple of weeks ahead of the July 4th celebrations of American Independence, the national holiday fills out a season of remembering and honoring the struggles of so many of our forebears to give us the freedoms we enjoy.

This year we plan to spend part of the day with our grandchildren and it will provide an excellent opportunity for us to teach them a bit more about the history they are inheriting and the sacrifices of so many along the long, long road towards freedom and justice. After a career of teaching the stories of Israel's Exodus from slavery in Egypt, we have a few ideas about how we teach the concepts of freedom and justice to a new generation.

A new holiday is an opportunity for new learning for our country. The ability of Congress to come together to find common ground in a season of partisan struggle and conflict is a long overdue sign that shows a level of maturity and dignity that has not often been demonstrated by our leaders in recent years. It is long overdue. It is worthy of our recognition and celebration.

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