Why Everyone Should Celebrate Juneteenth

I recall Juneteenth being widely observed by the local African American community when I was a little girl in Texas. There were barbecues, church services, and speeches, along with a general air of celebration. Today is the 145th anniversary of Juneteenth–June 19, 1865–the date when the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring the end of slavery, finally reached Texas 2 1/2 years late:

“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September, 1862, with an effective date of January 1, 1863. There are several versions of why the news traveled so slowly to Texas, a Confederate state, none of them particularly pretty, most having to do with foot dragging shenanigans and entrenched resistance to ending slavery, at least until another cotton picking season had finished.

In any case, this is why Juneteenth was first celebrated in Texas where it became an official state holiday in 1980.

During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, Juneteenth grew from a historical marker primarily recognized in Texas to a day celebrated nationally and even internationally; it has continued to grow in prominence not just in the African American community but across a spectrum of progressive political and social organizations.

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Juneteenth’s resonant message can be interpreted many ways. There’s the literal date on which the slaves in Texas were legally freed from their bondage. But for those engaged in social justice work, its meaning is bigger.

First, as Martin Luther King observed,  the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We don’t have to be patient, but we must take the long view, stay optimistic, and know that change can happen–will happen if we stick with it.

And second, the liberation of anyone is the liberation of everyone.

Juneteenth, with its distinctive and particular African American dialect serves as a reminder to us all that the human aspiration to freedom and justice is universal.

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