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Juneteenth Is A Day Of Joy — And Unfinished Business


Americans should recognize Juneteenth, their newest official holiday, as more than just another three-day weekend on Monday.

The date in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced General Order No. 3, declaring liberation for all in bondage in the last Confederate state with institutional slavery, is also known as Emancipation Day. While pockets of slavery would exist abroad, the event spawned the first African American holiday, with celebrations beginning in 1866.

The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, signed by President Joe Biden last year, established a new national holiday and invited all Americans to reflect on its significance: The day honors America’s early efforts to correct a grave wrong — and encourages the country to confront its original sin’s unfinished work. It effectively challenges Americans to reconcile their patriotic ideals with the reality of ongoing disparities.

The revolution of 1776, as wonderful as it was, had failed to confer the blessings of liberty on all Americans, as abolitionist Frederick Douglass emphasized in the scathing 1852 lecture known as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Your joy is empty and heartless to him; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are hollow mockery; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all their religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, de At this hour, no nation on the planet is more guilty of appalling and bloody practices than the citizens of the United States.

President Abraham Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation a little more than a decade later, granting freedom to 3.5 million enslaved people. From the 15th Amendment to Brown v. Board of Education, to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, to President Barack Obama’s election, the African American tale has been one of gradual progress. To be sure, it was difficult, hard-won, and patchy progress, but progress nonetheless.

It’s not difficult to see why Douglass’ remarks still sting a century and a half later. Even though tragic acts of police violence, such as the murder of George Floyd in 2020, have energized a generation of Americans to fight for racial justice, persistent disparities still exist in the United States.

Academic success discrepancies have not only remained but have been worsened by the pandemic’s catastrophic learning loss. Even though the national unemployment rate is near-historically low at 3.6 percent, Black unemployment remains at 6.5 percent. Over the last 40 years, racial wealth inequality has only widened, indicating a clear failure of social policy. Meanwhile, African Americans continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of America’s gun violence epidemic, with ten times the amount of gun homicides as white Americans.

Slavery’s formal abolition was a watershed moment for the country, and it should be honored as such. Juneteenth commemorates the day when America finally began to live up to its foundational principles. It’s appropriate to celebrate such achievement while still acknowledging that the country has a long way to go.

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