Juneteenth 2020: The Important Event Nobody Had Heard Of Before Trump Made It So Famous
Today is Juneteenth, which Donald Trump learned about last week. On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger informed enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, that — surprise! — Abraham Lincoln had freed them two and half years earlier. Slavery was still legal in the Union border states and wouldn't “officially" end until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 6, 1865, but who wants to celebrate anything when it's cold outside? Let us have June.
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Juneteenth is a legal state holiday in Texas, and California Sen. Kamala Harris announced Thursday that she's working with Cory Booker, Tina Smith, and Ed Markey on legislation that would make Juneteenth a national holiday — just like the Fourth of July but not a hypocritical farce. Frederick Douglass, who Trump also rescued from obscurity, cast fierce shade on America's so-called “Independence Day" in his 1852 speech, “What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?"
... I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Unfortunately, we all know Rand Paul will do his best to wreck this shit. But let's not waste time discussing dumb white boys. This ain't White Boy Day. It's Juneteenth. So, let's talk about Opal Lee. She's 94 and grew up in Texas. When she was 10, her family moved on up to Sycamore Park, a predominantly white neighborhood in Fort Worth. Two years later, in 1938, a mob of white supremacists set fire to her home because black people aren't supposed to have nice things. We're barely permitted freedom.
Sen. Harris announces new plans for legislation proposing Juneteenth be a national holiday: "Together with my colle… https://t.co/BGqcCYAEYM— MSNBC (@MSNBC) 1592524213.0
This act of cruelty and violence didn't crush Lee's spirit. Instead, it galvanized her and set her on a lifelong crusade for justice, like Batman but real. In 2016, she made her own bold effort to have Juneteenth declared a national holiday. She walked from her home in Fort Worth to Washington DC. That's about 1,359 miles. She traveled two-and-half miles each day to symbolize the two-and-a-half years black Texans waited for their freedom.
"I decided that surely there was something I could do to bring attention to the fact that we needed Juneteenth as a national holiday," Lee said. "So I decided, if a little old lady in tennis shoes was walking toward Washington, D.C., somebody would take notice."
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862 but it wasn't effective until January 1863. The president didn't believe he had the constitutional authority to end slavery in the states, but he could take military measures during a war. The Proclamation was limited to areas where there was open insurrection. Freeing enslaved people was an economic blow to the Confederacy and helped the US militarily because the newly freed were eager to kill Southern whites.
Many black churches still have “Watch Night" or “Freedom's Eve" services on December 31 in recognition of how black people stayed up all night before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. It wasn't just a the dawn of a new year but the start of a new era of freedom.
Juneteenth commemorates when freedom reached all black people, but we're not naive. We understand that true freedom for black Americans is aspirational. There's always room for improvement. We appreciate more than anyone that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, eternal struggle, and we will keep marching on, following in Ms. Opal Lee's footsteps.
LEE: The difference between Juneteenth and the 4th of July? Woo, girl! The fact is none of us are free till we're all free ... So, the 4th of July? Slaves weren't free. You know that, don't you? And so we just celebrate the hell out of the 4th of July, so I suggest that if we're going to do some celebrating of freedom, that we have our festival, our educational components, our music, from June the 19 — Juneteenth — to the 4th of July. Now that would be celebrating freedom.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."