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What we celebrate this Juneteenth

A Black Lives Matter mural in "Graffiti Alley" in Central Square.
A Black Lives Matter mural in "Graffiti Alley" in Central Square.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Juneteenth is part celebration, part commemoration, and part parable.

By legend, it marks the day in 1865 when Union troops arrived in Texas and informed enslaved people there that they were free, that slavery had come to a close, bringing to fruition the promise of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier.

That notion that Texas slaves were unaware that slavery had been banned is dubious. It’s more accurate to think of it as the day necessary muscle arrived to make their liberation a reality.

The promises from the end of the Civil War remain unfulfilled. Civil rights, economic rights, and voting rights were thwarted for a century, and in some ways still are.

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And this Juneteenth finds Americans in the streets, joined again in a battle for that elusive idea of freedom. Fighting, once again, for true equity in the land where all of us were created equal. As much as anything, Juneteenth is an observance of promises still waiting to be delivered.

The absence of those promises is hitting us with full force.

It’s there in a video from Minneapolis showing a Black man being strangled to death with a white cop’s knee on his neck.

It’s in the images from a Wendy’s in Atlanta where a Black man is shot twice in the back while running away from two white police officers.

Those broken promises can be found in the heartbreaking and harrowing saga of COVID-19, in which race and poverty have emerged as the most potent of preexisting conditions.

If the Fourth of July is a day to celebrate our dreams of freedom and quality (“All men are created equal” Thomas Jefferson wrote, in words he never meant literally), then this Juneteenth holds up a mirror to our far less idyllic reality.

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The celebrations, if that's the word, will be more robust than ever. Juneteenth is having a moment. Which is interesting, because the path to this point has been halting.

Juneteenth was first celebrated by African-Americans in Texas and Oklahoma. As they migrated — more commonly west, to California, than north or northeast — they took their holiday with them. But if you ask Black people over 50 if they grew up with Juneteenth, most will tell you that they didn’t grow up with that date marked on their calendar to commemorate the end of slavery.

Black churches seldom observe the specific moment of emancipation, observed former state representative Byron Rushing. “We have no Passover. It is pretty remarkable. I think the trauma is still too close to us.”

Here, the original celebrations, in the 1970s in Franklin Park, were tied to a longstanding annual festival in which Roxbury residents and those who had moved away from the neighborhood gathered in an annual reunion. Those “Reunion Days” evolved into Juneteenth celebrations.

Now Juneteenth is fused to a remarkable social movement in which anything seems possible. Defund the Police. Abolish the Police. Make Juneteenth a national holiday. It’s all on the table.

“What’s happening on the street is so remarkable in that white establishment people are giving things no one asked for,” Rushing said. “I’ve never heard anyone ask that companies let people off on Juneteenth. That’s never been a demand.”

The demands of this moment are still being formulated, but they come tied by a common thread. They come with a charge to challenge and rethink notions of what it means to be fair. And to rethink everyone’s obligation to be a party to that struggle. To be not merely not racist, but actively antiracist. To be active participants in building something more just.

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The day that inspired Juneteenth was not, in fact, the day, slavery ended in Texas. Union troops occupied Texas for months, shutting down various means of trying to maintain a status quo of human bondage.

It was a beginning.

If we are lucky and brave and bold, this insane year of pandemic, uprising, and upheaval might be another beginning. Americans stand on the shoulders of idealists, but grounded in the realities of the oppressed. Juneteenth, from its beginning, has been a monument to that tension.

For once, that drama is front and center.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.