Juneteenth: A Holiday for All Americans to Embrace and Commemorate

America today celebrates Juneteenth, a commemoration both of the horrors of the nation’s original sin, slavery, and of its end.

The holiday traces to victorious Union Gen. Gordon Granger’s June 19, 1865 order putting the Emancipation Proclamation (issued in January 1863) into full legal effect across Texas and freeing all the state’s remaining slaves.

The celebration has since spread, especially in the South, culminating in federal recognition in 2021 by President Biden.

Juneteenth should be celebrated as a holiday for all Americans.
Juneteenth should be celebrated as a holiday for all Americans. ink drop – stock.adobe.com

So what, as a holiday for all Americans — a fully national occasion as Independence Day and Thanksgiving are — should we make of it?

One all-too-fashionable idea is to treat black history and black life as somehow unapproachably apart from the larger history and larger life of this country. Yet that plainly stands as an obstacle to grasping the full meaning of this day.

As the great American sociologist and civil-rights warrior W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1905:

We will not be satisfied to take one jot or tittle less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans.

Precisely. The struggle for freedom and dignity undertaken by black Americans is inextricably linked to the larger ideas that breathed life into this nation. The oppression and struggle they endured should remind us all that liberty and dignity are not to be taken for granted, but to be continually fought for and defended.

Indeed, as another great American thinker — Frederick Douglass — once urged his nation on Independence Day:

We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work.

The work Douglass referred to was extending the full blessings of liberty to all Americans: With long and bloody struggle, the nation ended slavery — and, with a much longer struggle, black Americans won the legal rights they had been denied.

Though our society is still imperfect, though black Americans still face obstacles, the new separatism that seems dangerously close to reality — in which our different races, not our commonalities, will define us for good and all — will not advance the principles Douglass championed or the battle Du Bois waged.

The battle will continue. And the generations since those words were written stand not only on the shoulders of Douglass and Du Bois but also Harriet Tubman, Frances Harper, Booker T. Washington and countless others as they fight it.

Or rather: As we fight it. It’s our battle, no matter what the prophets of division argue. And we should be as proud to take it up as we are awed by the weight of suffering it carries.

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