Juneteenth was different this year. Indeed, there was an extra cause for celebration for those who have fought long and hard to gain national attention for the day. That finally happened June 17 as President Joe Biden signed a bill establishing a federal holiday recognizing the end of slavery in the United States.
Here’s some context: Slaves in Texas weren’t notified of their freedom until June 19, 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Even after that, freedom wasn’t official until the 13th Amendment was ratified in early December of that year.
Locally, the Colorado Springs Juneteenth Festival, hosted by DeAndre and Jennifer Smith, marked a new era in how the holiday will be celebrated in the city. The festival lasted three days and included Mayor John Suthers and Councilor Yolanda Avila, who officially proclaimed the day a holiday in the city. Over the weekend, hundreds of people gathered to enjoy food trucks and art displays, and to be entertained by a Trends of Africa fashion show and performances by local and international talent like Ashley Cornelius, Tony Exum Jr., Shai, Surface and Tao. It was an incredibly vibrant weekend filled with celebration, positivity, joy and connection.
Celebrations are great and the creation of a federal holiday is a move in the right direction, but the collective cognitive dissonance surrounding race in our society is as strong as ever. According to a 2020 Pew Research study, at the height of the protests last June, support for Black Lives Matter was at 67 percent among adults in the United States. It had dropped to 55 percent by September. White and Hispanic people expressed the greatest decline in support — from 60 percent to 45 percent for whites, and from 77 down to 66 percent for Hispanics. Among Black and Asian adults, support for the movement had remained stronger: 87 percent, Black, and 69 percent, Asian.
And now we’re beginning to see pushback surrounding Critical Race Theory (20 states have either banned such curriculum in schools or have introduced bills seeking to). So, we are willing to acknowledge slavery existed but we’re not willing to teach that its fallout has been systematically ingrained in American society and institutions? Yeah, OK.
If we collectively acknowledged those effects, we’d actually have to take action and move toward reparations. We’d have to look at the impact of hundreds of years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of “separate but equal” and decades of racist housing policies, and rectify these things so we can move forward as a nation. (See Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic.)
We’d have to address Republican-controlled states and their push to go backward in time, reverse voting rights by indefinitely filibustering legislation that protects some voters while simultaneously passing legislation that blocks access to voting where Black and Brown populations are highest.
We’d have to collectively address police violence against Black people and overhaul that institution where slavery has not yet been abolished: the criminal justice system. One can simply calculate these injustices by counting the Black and Brown inmates in the nation’s prison system and compare that number to the racial makeup of the country’s population as a whole).
The declining interest in BLM’s cause indicates people were more supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd was murdered than they are were last September. And while symbolic gestures like naming Juneteenth a federal holiday are nice, they do not equate to systemic changes. Has the opportunity passed? Do people’s hearts no longer yearn for justice? One holiday doesn’t mean the end of a movement. The real work continues.