High props go to 94-year-old Opal Lee, the Texas woman determined to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Thanks to her efforts and those of others like Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, the eleventh national holiday, and the first since Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday was made a holiday. For federal employees, it means a paid day off work. Some private employers will also make Juneteenth a paid day off. I chuckle at the irony of Klan members getting a paid day off work to commemorate Juneteenth. Perhaps that will help them with the concept that the South lost the Civil War!
While I am buoyed by the new holiday, I’m not jumping for joy nor dancing in the street. The Senate passed the holiday legislation unanimously. How come they can’t do the same for the George Floyd bill or voting rights? While the Juneteenth holiday is impactful, the ease with which it got Senate passage ought to give us all pause. It is easier to support a holiday than to support the principle of democracy, which is allegedly at the foundation of our democracy. It is easier to support a holiday than to abolish the use of the chokehold. It is easier to support a holiday than to support SB 40, the Senate’s reparations bill.
Juneteenth reminds me of justice and equality denied. Those Galveston enslaved people didn’t find out they were free until nearly two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Their exploiters were the beneficiaries of thousands of hours of free labor. They intended to game the system and exploit Black people for as long as they could. Fast forward. The exploiters are still gaming the system with prison labor, substandard wages, and other forms of economic injustice. It will take something more than a holiday to right those wrongs.
If Juneteenth goes the same way other American “holidays” do, it will be commercialized. Consider Dr. King’s birthday and the sales that holiday motivates. I cringe to think what might be sold to commemorate Juneteenth, but capitalism is the mother of exploitation, so I’m sure the evilly creative will come up with something. No, I’m not jumping for Juneteenth.
President Biden gets credit for signing this legislation, just as he gets credit for going to Tulsa at the hundredth commemoration of the destruction of Black Wall Street. While both these things are primarily symbolic, these are symbolic gestures that he did not have to make. If Biden doesn’t “get” race and racism (and honestly, what white person does), he’s spent enough time with Senior Advisor Cedric Richmond and Vice President Kamala Harris to communicate his affinity for Black people and his commitment to some progress. It’s up to us, now, to push him on what needs to happen next.
We aren’t likely to get the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed unless the filibuster is eliminated. Still, President Biden has shillyshallied about getting rid of the filibuster, and West Virginia’s DINO (Democrat in Name Only) Senator Joe Manchin is no help. He says he values bipartisanship, but he seems to appreciate nothing more than the attention he gets by “negotiating” with recalcitrant Republicans who love the former president more than they value justice. Sure, they voted unanimously to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Still, several in Congress voted against it, and several others voted to withhold the Congressional Medal of Honor from the capitol police officers who bravely defended them on January 6. Some of them still adhere to the big lie that the previous won the election. But they voted to make Juneteenth a holiday. I’m not jumping.
Juneteenth represents more than symbolic progress, though. While most of white America had never heard of Juneteenth, now they have. They now have the opportunity to reflect on our nation’s history in ways they haven’t reflected on it before. Annually, there will be a flurry of newspaper articles and television specials focusing on Juneteenth. The ignorant can change the channel or flip the pages of their newspapers, but commemorating Juneteenth begins the process of fully embracing our flawed history.
So while I won’t jump, I’ll pause for a minute to thank the Juneteenth warriors who made this holiday happen. And I’ll ask President Biden not to rest on his laurels. We need the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to be passed yesterday, and by whatever means necessary. Melvin van Peebles wrote a play in the 1970s, Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death. One of the lines that stuck with me through these many years is from a woman folks assume is suicidal because she is standing on a ledge. She says, “I ain’t leaping. I’m just learning”. That’s how I feel about the Juneteenth holiday, not leaping for joy but leaning in gratitude and progress.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.