The most recent round of anti-racism protests in the United States has come at a timely moment. The protests, prompted by the recent police killings of Black people, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade among them, came weeks ahead of the day when many people celebrate Black Americans' independence day: Juneteenth. And the meaning of Juneteenth is crucial to understand as the country moves forward in the fight against systemic racism.
Juneteenth celebrates the day — June 19, 1865 — when the last enslaved people in Texas learned they had been legally freed under the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which had passed in Congress on Jan. 31, 1865, and ratified on Dec. 6, 1865. The Emancipation Proclamation, which officially freed all formally enslaved people in the Confederate states, was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862, and went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. It also allowed formerly enslaved people to fight with the Union Army, arguably making it more of a military tactic than a moral stance. However, two and a half years passed before many enslaved people in Confederate states knew about it.
On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, Union General Gordon Granger announced General Order Number 3, which began, "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free." The address continued, "This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor." Today, June 19 is widely commemorated as the anniversary of legal emancipation in the United States.
On June 19, 1866, Texas celebrated the first Juneteenth, which included celebratory events like musical performances, cookouts, and parades. Celebrating Juneteenth became a tradition in following years, initially led by Black Americans in Texas, before spreading to different areas of the United States, carried by participants who emigrated to other states. On Jan. 1, 1980, Texas declared Juneteenth an official holiday, and as of 2019, Juneteenth is officially celebrated or observed in 47 of the 50 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, according to the data from the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service (CRS).
As of 2020, there's a growing movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Major companies are taking steps to incorporate Juneteenth as a paid workplace holiday, including Nike, Twitter, and the National Football League (NFL).
However, there's still work to be done. A loophole in the 13th Amendment says, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In short, a person can still be enslaved, if they've been convicted of a crime. Many scholars and activists assert that this loophole exists to allow the continued enslavement of Black people, who are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States. As the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) notes, Black people are incarcerated in America at "more than five times the rate of whites," and although Black and Hispanic Americans are approximately 32% of the U.S. population, they made up 56% of those incarcerated in 2015. In response, abolitionist groups like Critical Resistance and many other organizations are working to end the inequality in the justice system and fighting for mass prison reform.
In 2020, many activists, organizations, and allies are planning to mark Juneteenth as a celebration of Black joy amidst the protests against racism that continue around the country. If you want to join, there are Juneteenth events planned around the country. And if you can't, there are still ways to help out and honor the holiday.