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Juneteenth Holiday Would Offer U.S. Chance To Move Forward By Confronting Racial Past, Scholar Says

Statues from the Juneteenth memorial at the George Washington Carver Museum.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
A Juneteenth memorial was installed behind the George Washington Carver Museum in East Austin on the 150th anniversary of the event in 2015.

Calls have been mounting to make Juneteenth a national holiday amid protests for police reforms and racial justice. Juneteenth commemorates the day when African-Americans who were enslaved in Galveston in 1865 found out they were free – more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Peniel Joseph, founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, said declaring Juneteenth a national holiday would give people the chance to explore the issues highlighted in the recent protests.

"Juneteenth ... really provides us a context to talk about racial slavery, American democracy, black citizenship, ending racism, ending white supremacy in a holistic way," he said. "In African-American communities that celebrate it, [Juneteenth] represents the birth of a new American freedom that is still obviously tragically incomplete. But it provides us a springboard to have that conversation and a policy impact around racial slavery and the world that black labor actually built in the United States."

Joseph spoke with KUT's Jennifer Stayton about what it would mean to make Juneteenth a national holiday and why the social movement happening now has staying power.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.  

Jennifer Stayton: I'm wondering, Peniel, when I think about other national federal holidays that have, you know, deeply important and significant meanings, we look at the way some people treat those days and they treat it as a day off or as a day to go shopping or, you know, do other things that don't seem very aligned with the meaning of the day. If Juneteenth were a national federal holiday, do you think that people would take the opportunity to do the reflection and work around the day?

Peniel Joseph: Yeah, I think so. I think that one of the things we do with national holidays and we've seen it with Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday, we see it with the Fourth of July, is that it's up to people and institutions to imbue the holiday with its actual meaning in people's day-to-day life. So, for instance, millions of people really celebrate and commemorate Dr. King's national holiday as a day of service where people are going to serve their communities and think about King's notion that we can all be great leaders because we can all be of service.

I think that if we had a holiday that was Juneteenth, we would connect it to educating ourselves about both the origins of racial slavery in the United States, but also slavery's aftermath and what happened during Reconstruction and Redemption. Where did we have racial progress and where did we have racial setbacks that have led us all the way to 2020?

In a lot of ways, Juneteenth would be a great holiday where we move forward by looking back at our past and finally coming to terms and acknowledging that black people actually built American democracy. They actually built the flourishing system of capitalism, racial capitalism that we have. And they've lacked access to that system ever since. But so many people don't know that history. It would be, I think, really, really important nationally, especially in light of what's happening, to really confront that history and see how we can use that history to spring forward.

Stayton: Juneteenth, obviously, right now is not a national federal holiday. How do you feel that people regard the day Juneteenth right now?

Joseph: Well, I think it's catching real, real momentum, especially since the events of the last three weeks. In New York City, I knew about Juneteenth growing up, but we lived in a diasporic city where you had folks from Texas and had folks who had knowledge of Juneteenth and what it was. Here in Texas, we have different companies that are celebrating Juneteenth that are setting up different commemorations, day off, day of education because of Juneteenth, really as a way to amplify what's happening nationally, where we're seeing ancient symbols of racism and white supremacy being torn down overnight and opening up to a new world of possibilities for black dignity, citizenship, racial justice.

I think Juneteenth as a national holiday brings us closer to achieving our country and to building that beloved community that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of so often and so eloquently.

Stayton: Peniel, you mentioned what we're seeing now nationally: Statues are coming down; protests and demonstrations are continuing. In the past, there have been actions following events like the shooting of a black person by police. Those sometimes in the past have faded out or they have left the national attention after a period of time passes by. That doesn't seem to be happening this time. And I'm wondering if you can describe the staying power? Or describe what seems to be the staying power of these activities this time?

Joseph: Well, I think we're seeing a social movement, but I think that that social movement has deep, long roots in the civil rights movement, the social justice movements of the 1960s, and certainly is owed to the Black Lives Matter movement. But I think what we see with these national and global demonstrations is that movements for Me Too, movements for immigration rights, movements against anti-Muslim sentiment, movements for LGBTQ rights and citizenship and dignity – those allied movements have also taken to the streets of over 2,000 cities in the United States at this point.

I think that the movement does have staying power. We've seen from whether it's at the grassroots or corporate America acknowledging really for the first time systemic racism and committing themselves to doing something about it. In a lot of ways people are leading much more than political leaders or elected leaders because the shift has been so quick.

And so I think in a lot of ways, the combination of the COVID pandemic, the racial disparities, their shelter-in-place orders, mass unemployment and then the viral video of George Floyd's public execution has really galvanized the world into this watershed historical moment and really Americans into this watershed historical moment.

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