In celebrating Juneteenth, don’t lose focus of the work ahead

Thursday, June 17, 2021
NOTE: This post was originally published in 2021. We have republished it as part of our Juneteenth content exploring the history and meanings of this commemoration of freedom.

This year, the Washington State legislature passed House Bill 1016, a bill that makes Juneteenth an official state holiday. The move comes as the day officially became a federal holiday Thursday, and after other states and municipalities have passed or considered similar efforts.

Juneteenth marks the official end of slavery, commemorating the day in 1865 when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and notified enslaved people there of the end of the Civil War and beginning of their freedom — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

The push to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday picked up momentum last year after the killing of George Floyd, as the country became immersed in a national reckoning on racism in America. And while Washington had already joined most states in recognizing or observing Juneteenth before last year, the renewed attention offered many in Washington an opportunity to learn of the holiday.

Proponents of Washington’s effort see recognizing the holiday as a great step toward a more inclusive state focused on reconciliation and healing from the trauma of slavery’s legacy. It provides Washingtonians an opportunity to acknowledge the past honestly and honor the memories of those whose involuntary labor helped build the country.

Outside of participating in celebrations, fostering honest conversations about race, or even supporting Black-owned businesses, the best way to honor this day — and the victims of America’s original sin and their descendants — is to take a proactive approach in advancing the cause of antiracism. The institution of American slavery may be long gone, but the forces that established it, maintained it, and went to war for it have never taken a day off.

Neither should you.

Black Americans still deal with the subsequent effects of slavery’s legacy through racism and inequities that persist to this day. Those effects appear in a variety of ways. They exist in the longstanding and still-widening racial wealth gap, bolstered by a history of racist housing laws that have impacted families’ ability to gain generational wealth. They appear in the history of mass incarceration. Those effects appear in most instances that result in disparate outcomes whether they be in education, healthcare, access to healthy food, or the over-policing of certain communities.

Today’s most visible push to continue inequities can be seen in the recent efforts by legislatures throughout the nation to restrict voting access; through efforts by some of those same legislatures to provide cover for people who injure protesters expressing their First Amendment rights; and attempts by states to drastically limit teaching an honest account of our nation’s history in schools.

The work to push back against these attempts and the broader issue of systemic inequality should be rooted in advancing antiracist policies. The ACLU of Washington championed police reform bills this past legislative session, and through hard work, a coalition was able to help pass more than a dozen bills aimed at police accountability — the original issue from last summer that brought Juneteenth back to the forefront. The state also passed legislation automatically restoring voting rights for formerly incarcerated residents, undoing felony disenfranchisement law that has disproportionately marginalized Black Americans since the use of such laws in the Jim Crow south.

And, as we said last year, we urge people to continue to voice support for H.R. 40, national legislation that will set up a commission to study reparations and develop proposals for issuing them. Rallying around these causes and others helps continue the path toward equality for all.

Our country is more than 150 years removed from slavery, but the fight continues for true liberation. Recognizing Juneteenth is a great step toward a more inclusive state, but it’s important to not let the day fall into simply a symbolic gesture. So, whether you spend this day at a cookout or at home, don’t lose sight of the important work that is still in front of us.