Why Juneteenth Matters

tags: African American history, Juneteenth

On June 19, 1968, Washington, D.C. was under siege from a radical iteration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beloved Community.” Ralph Abernathy, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), had invited people from all across the country to stand in solidarity with the Poor People’s Campaign, then encamped in the nation’s capital demanding support for the poor across ethnic and racial lines in the United States. That June 19 was chosen as “Solidarity Day” was no coincidence. Indeed, the day’s significance as Juneteenth lent the proceedings a greater historical and rhetorical depth. Abernathy, King Jr.’s spouse Coretta Scott King, and their fellow activists were demanding nothing less than a rebirth of freedom—one tied to the last rebirth of freedom, in 1865. 

As a holiday and a day of celebration, Juneteenth has never been better known than it is today—both inside and outside the Black American community. A Juneteenth flag, first designed in 1997, now flies at various military bases every year. And this year, a national uproar over President Donald Trump initially scheduling a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma—sparked by both the timing of the Juneteenth celebration and the Tulsa race riot of 1921—has further pushed the holiday into the national consciousness. But the humble roots of the holiday and its continued existence illustrate the Black American struggle to forge their own remembrance of America’s past, stripped of unearned pomp and circumstance, but nonetheless filled with a pledge to cherish—and defend—freedom. 

The holiday’s origins spring from the chaotic end of the American Civil War in the late spring and early summer of 1865. While Union armies had broken the Army of Northern Virginia, and forced the surrender of the Army of Tennessee in the east, it would be months before word of the end of the conflict reached Texas. Texas itself did not see any major battles, and the distance of the state from the rest of the nation, along with slave-owners simply not informing their slaves of wartime developments, meant word of exciting events back east took a long time to reach the enslaved.  By then, the Emancipation Proclamation had already promised freedom to enslaved people still held in the Confederacy after January 1, 1863. In addition, the House and Senate had both passed the Thirteenth Amendment to ban slavery, pending approval by the necessary three-fourths of state legislatures. 

In Texas, Confederate generals tried to hold out after April 1865, but most Confederate soldiers, aware that the war in the east was over, began deserting in the spring of 1865. Slaveholders in bordering Confederate states fled to Texas with enslaved people in tow, determined to extract the last ounce of unearned labor from their “property.” 

Freedom finally arrived in Texas on June 19, 1865, when U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger issued General Orders, Number 3.  The orders stated, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” The proclamation went on to confirm a “new normal” for Texas: “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

Juneteenth marks the slaveholders’ failure to hold on to their power—a final, thundering death blow to slavery in the United States. The holiday was created by Black Americans as a local version of a  celebration of freedom. Nationally, Emancipation Day, which commemorated the official date of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, was celebrated on January 1 across the nation well into the 20th century. The contribution of Juneteenth by Black Texans to the broader Black American pantheon of celebrations and holidays should be cherished, just like that of the first Decoration Day held by Black South Carolinians in 1865. Decoration Day began in Charleston as Black Americans honored deceased Union soldiers while celebrating their own newfound freedom. Decoration Day would later become known as “Memorial Day,” a day of mourning American lives lost in all wars.  

Read entire article at Current Affairs

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