Support grows for Juneteenth, 'America's True Independence Day,' in wake of George Floyd protests

As the nation continues to rally behind the Black Lives Matter movement, the push for celebrating Juneteenth as an official holiday has been growing 一 garnering support from government officials and prominent corporations.

Juneteenth — which gets its name from combining “June” and “19th” — is a widely recognized holiday that commemorates the freeing of the last slaves living in Galveston, Texas, a part of the Confederate South, on June 19, 1865. They received word they were free more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

A scene from Philadelphia's second annual Juneteenth Parade, in 2019. (Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This year the holiday has received more attention than usual, as the flood of recent protests across the United States has called for the recognition and appreciation of Black lives. As Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, told USA Today, “Juneteenth is a unifying holiday. It is the completion of the celebration of freedom in America.”

Recently the proposed federal holiday made headlines after President Trump received backlash for planning a presidential rally on the very same day, in Tulsa, Okla. — a particularly alarming detail, as Tulsa is known for what has been called "the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” the Black Wall Street Massacre. On Friday, Trump tweeted that he would reschedule his event “out of respect.”

The push for official recognition

Traditionally Juneteenth has been celebrated with barbecues, parades, voter registration efforts, marches and exhibitions that honor the culture and history of Black people in America, with cities such as Minneapolis and Philadelphia being home to some of the largest Juneteenth celebrations in the country; some smaller cities, such as Turlock, Calif., are having their very first Juneteenth celebrations in 2020. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced some to scale back or cancel, though it has also given rise to new ways to celebrate, including virtual parties and album releases. Online movements like HellaJuneteenth and a now-viral Change.org petition started by 93-year-old Opal Lee have encouraged people to honor the holiday by joining the effort to have the day recognized as an official national holiday.

The fight for Juneteenth to be recognized across the United States is one that has been waged for many years, as evidenced by a history of changes in states’ legislatures. Currently hundreds of cities, 46 states and the District of Columbia observe the holiday, with Texas being the first to do so back in 1980. Philadelphia, on the other hand, is the most recent to adopt the holiday; Virginia and New York also moved to do so this week, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing an executive order to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday this year and announcing plans to introduce legislation to make it permanent. In Virginia earlier this week, Gov. Ralph Northam announced his own legislation to do so while standing alongside Grammy-winning producer and Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams.

During the announcement, Northam acknowledged the holiday as just “one step toward reconciliation,” giving executive branch state employees the day off. “Juneteenth deserves the same level of recognition and celebration,” said Williams. “July 4, 1776, not everybody was free and celebrating their Independence Day. So here’s our day. And if you love us, it will be your day too.” This marks the governor’s most recent attempt to rectify the history of Virginia as a Confederate state, as earlier this year, Northam signed a bill into law to remove the Lee-Jackson Day holiday, which honored Confederate generals.

Corporate support grows

Also, many companies are now making Juneteenth a company holiday, offering their employees a paid day off. Among them are Twitter, Best Buy, Square, Nike, U.S. Bank, J.C. Penney, Quicken Loans and the NFL. “Both Twitter and Square are making #Juneteenth (June 19th) a company holiday in the US, forevermore,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted on June 9, calling it “a day for celebration, education, and connection.” Similarly, in a statement from the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell explained, “Juneteenth not only marks the end of slavery in the United States, but it also symbolizes freedom 一 a freedom that was delayed, and brutally resisted; and though decades of progress followed, a freedom for which we must continue to fight." 

Target is also joining the growing trend by closing its Minneapolis headquarters for the day, giving full-time hourly employees the option to take a paid day off and paying time and a half to those who don’t. “We recognize that the racial trauma the country is experiencing now is not new, but throughout recent weeks there has been a sense that this time is, and has to be, different,” said Brian Cornell, Target’s chief executive, in a statement. “Juneteenth takes on additional significance in this moment.”

Some are even pushing to replace July Fourth with Juneteenth, or what some are calling America’s True Independence Day (or, alternately, Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day or Black Independence Day). Frederick Douglass first raised the issue in his 1852 address, asking: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” He continued, “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

More recently, author Elizabeth Lampkin wrote, “In the wake of recent events, I think it is time to rekindle the flame of reflection, rejoicing, rebuilding, and reconnecting with each other and our surrounding communities. Rather than celebrating a holiday that was not designed to acknowledge freedom for all, why not celebrate the oldest day in history that marked liberty for people of color.”

Many echoed Lampkin’s sentiment — including Maahley Van der Woodson, spokesperson for the DMV Daily Black Lives Matter peaceful protest to Abolish July 4th (tweet above), who told Yahoo Life, “Despite the desire to completely abolish July 4th, we realize that is impractical. However, we believe Juneteenth should be a federal holiday recognized and honored nationwide. It is important to celebrate this day separate from July 4th, to highlight the fact that not all of us were free.”

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