Conflict Alerts # 398, 23 June 2021
On 17 June, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which made 19 June an official federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the country. Biden said: "I have to say to you, I've only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president. By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history — and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we've come (and) the distance we have to travel." It became America's first new holiday since Martin Luther King Day in 1983.
On 19 June, the holiday celebrations were marred by acts of violence across the country that left at least five people dead. In Oakland, California, seven people were shot at a Juneteenth celebration, leaving one dead. In Colorado, masked gunmen fired 114 rounds into a Juneteenth party, killing one and injuring four people.
Issues at large
First, a brief history of Juneteenth. The day — an amalgamation of June and nineteenth — is the anniversary of enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, being told that they were free. Texas was one of the last Confederate states where slavery was still institutionalized. The proclamation by the Union forces, who had taken control of the town towards the end of the American Civil War, came on 19 June 1865. This date has since been celebrated as a holiday by the African-American community to commemorate the end of slavery in the country.
Second, the end of a long fight by African-Americans on Juneteenth. Prior to Biden's declaration, only a few states recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Previous attempts to declare the occasion as a federal holiday were met with resistance. Last year, one such bill had been blocked by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who cited the costs of an additional holiday. Barack Obama, as a senator, had co-sponsored a similar bill; however, he was unable to get it passed even after he became president.
Third, the inequality that African-Americans still have to face in the US. The declaration comes barely a month after the first anniversary of the George Floyd murder, which sparked widespread protests across the country against police brutality towards African-Americans. It also comes during a time when Republican-controlled states are passing restrictive voting measures, designed to prevent African-Americans from exercising their franchise.
Despite official recognition of the holiday, recent events show that there is still a long way to go. The violence that marked the celebrations exemplify this. There have also been criticisms that while an official holiday has been declared, little is being done to educate people about the struggle that Juneteenth is meant to honour. Nevertheless, it remains a step in the right direction.