Holidays, memorials, and symbols have always been part of American history and heritage, and in this time of racial reckoning we have an opportunity to add a new one — Juneteenth, America’s Independence Day — the day slavery came to an end.
A blend of the words June and nineteenth, this day commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Black people in the United States on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3, proclaiming freedom from slavery in Texas.
There have been several national holidays added to the calendar in our nation’s history. The first occurred in November 1789, when President George Washington announced a proclamation for a day of thanks and prayer. In 1870, Congress designated New Year’s Day, George Washington’s Birthday, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day as the first five federal holidays. Today, there are 10 federally recognized holidays, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, which was added in 1983.
In the wake of last year’s racial awakening and particularly the murder of George Floyd, the anniversary of which we have just observed, a number of companies moved to offer Juneteenth as a paid day off for their employees. Companies as diverse as Nike, Lyft, Best Buy, Adobe, the NFL, and JPMorgan Chase — for the first time — spoke publicly about the significance of the day and began recognizing it in some way. Many higher education institutions, including Berklee College of Music, have added Juneteenth as a paid holiday.
This holiday has also been acknowledged by states, including Texas, home of the first Juneteenth celebration in 1979, followed by New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and, last year, Massachusetts.
Boston has an opportunity to bring this symbol of freedom to accompany “The Embrace” — the memorial being built on the Boston Common to inspire the social justice values that King and Coretta Scott King espoused — as part of a new #ALLINCLUSIVE Boston. But Boston could go further.
Remember that Evacuation Day was established as a Suffolk County holiday in 1938. The county’s large Irish American population helped lobby for observance of Evacuation Day on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, to observe the end of the British siege of Boston during the American Revolutionary War. We all now embrace and celebrate the holiday as our own. Patriots Day is another homegrown celebration, first established to commemorate the Revolutionary War battles at Lexington and Concord, which are memorialized each year on Marathon Monday. We have a track record of creating and celebrating unique histories and expanding one group’s narrative into one we all embrace. The city should now embrace Juneteenth, to create a celebration of emancipation in our “Cradle of Liberty” that will challenge all of us to fully commit to freedom and equity in our city and Commonwealth.
Juneteenth should also be a federal holiday. The road to MLK Day was over a decade in the making. After King’s assassination in 1968, US Representative John Conyers of Michigan and US Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first popularly elected Black senator in the nation, introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday. After years of opposition, including by Republican Senators Jesse Helms and John Porter East of North Carolina, who sought to block it, President Ronald Reagan eventually signed the holiday into law. Coretta Scott King was appointed to the committee to implement the holiday, and finally, in 2000, 17 years after its approval, the King holiday was observed in all 50 states.
It took years of Coretta Scott King’s tireless leadership, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee and joint hearings of Congress and mobilizing the nation, to propel King’s birthday into a federal holiday. Let’s not wait 20 years this time.
Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts has sponsored legislation to create a new national holiday that not only commemorates the day of independence for enslaved Americans but also illuminates the continued struggle for true Black liberation. As King said, the Declaration of Independence was “signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The ratification of Juneteenth as a federal holiday would provide an opportunity for all citizens, of every race, to remember, reflect, learn and celebrate America’s enduring — but unfinished — aspiration of liberty and justice for all.
Imari Paris Jeffries is executive director of King Boston. The Rev. Liz Walker is senior pastor of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church. The Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown is founder of My City at Peace.