The Civic Promise of Juneteenth

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By Tobin Miller Shearer, TIME Magazine

Newark Mayor Ray Baraka speak to attendees as people protest during the annual Juneteenth commemorations June 19, 2023, in Newark, N.J. (Eduardo MunozAlvarez—VIEWpress/Getty Images)

While Martin Luther King, Jr.’s January birthday has been a national holiday for nearly four decades, the four-year-old Juneteenth federal holiday already holds greater promise for civic education.

Precisely because a more racially contentious dynamic has unfolded around Juneteenth, this relatively recent celebration has opened the door to a focused telling of Black history. By contrast the relatively lukewarm reception to Martin Luther King Jr. Day has made education about difficult stories from our nation’s past less likely.  Juneteenth, on the other hand, holds more promise for honest encounters with a past often obscured by the politics of the present.

Unlike the 2021 unanimous Senate vote and 415-14 House tally in favor of the Juneteenth holiday, the 1983 voting process for the King holiday was lengthy and conflictual. Having failed passage in both 1968 and 1979, the bill finally became law in 1983 but only after a Senate filibuster had been defeated and the House two-thirds majority mustered. At the state level, New Hampshire, the last state to establish a holiday to honor King by name, did not do so until 2000

Pundits at the time conjectured that such a contentious legislative process would foster ongoing dissension. Contrary to this prediction, however, the celebration of the King holiday soon lost its political edge. Only a year after the first celebration of the holiday, noted civil rights historian and author Vincent Harding observed in the September 1987 edition of the Journal of American History that the country had developed “a massive case of national amnesia” by stripping King of his prophetic and revolutionary messages. As a result, the holiday rarely stirred new controversies.

By contrast, the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021 offered a rare moment of bi-partisan support for racially conscious legislation. But the subsequent record of Juneteenth celebrations has been far more mixed. To be certain, this new holiday has popularized the Juneteenth history. The delay in announcing an end to slavery to the quarter million enslaved people in Texas is now much more widely known. Where once the account of the army’s arrival in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, rarely circulated outside African-American circles, the narrative is now told on an annual basis in thousands of celebrations across the country

At the same time, tensions around Juneteenth celebrations have increased in the wake of the initial bi-partisan consensus.

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