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OPINION

The war on Juneteenth

Don’t let the day that marked the end of slavery in 1865 be co-opted by corporate America or sterilized by right-wing anti-history campaigns.

Opal Lee stopped for water and a cool-down during her 2.5-mile commemorative trek through Fort Worth, Texas, on Juneteenth last year. She plans to make a similar journey this Sunday.Tom Fox/Associated Press

When the day she had championed for decades finally became a federal holiday last year, Opal Lee said, “Juneteenth is not a Texas thing. It’s not a Black thing. We’re talking about freedom for everyone.”

Not once did Lee mention Juneteenth as ice cream.

But that’s exactly how Walmart tried to co-opt Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, were told by a Union army major general that their bondage was over, ending chattel slavery in America. Last month, images of Walmart’s “Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream” began popping up on social media. Printed on a pint-sized carton covered with colors probably meant to evoke Kente cloth, along with Black and brown hands and (for some reason) musical notes, were the words “Share and celebrate African-American culture, emancipation and enduring hope.”

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Apparently in Walmart world, Black “culture, emancipation and enduring hope” taste like swirled red-velvet-and-cheesecake-flavored ice cream. (Which, by the way, sounds awful.) After a heated social media backlash, Walmart officials apologized and withdrew the item sold under its Great Value label.

If Walmart really cared about Black culture, it would have taken whatever it spent trying to capitalize on Juneteenth and put it toward thwarting the fight against teaching schoolchildren about the painful history that led to that momentous day in Texas. It’s hard to celebrate a holiday about the end of slavery without acknowledging the nearly 250 years of bondage, torture, and subjugation that preceded it.

Walmart is based in Arkansas. That’s one of the numerous states where Republican-led legislatures have banned or are considering bans against teaching history about slavery and its connection to the systemic racism that permeates every aspect of Black American lives, from housing to health care.

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For Black Americans, Juneteenth sits at the crossroads of promises made and unkept yet still within our sights. Celebrations of the day began in Texas but spread to Black communities nationwide as an occasion for rejoicing and remembering the ancestors who paved our path with their blood and determination. Yes, there are gatherings and good times, but it is also a day of deep reflection about the hard, unfinished work of equity and about how the hope of that day 157 years ago marked both an end and a beginning of the freedom we still strive to attain.

Since it’s more of a declaration of independence than July 4 represents, Juneteenth should have been a holiday long before President Biden made it official last year. Its federal recognition came about 13 months after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

Yet just as it took Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck for companies to suddenly acknowledge that their advertising logos were racist and that Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben should be retired, the new holiday felt like yet another symbolic distraction. Protesters demanded deeper systemic changes — demands that usually languish in corridors of power. In the Senate, the vote for the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was unanimous. There was no such unanimity for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Both stalled in the Senate.

Before it was a national holiday, Juneteenth was recognized by Black people as a challenge to white supremacy. We don’t need Juneteenth gentrified for white sensibilities or exploited with ice cream brands or paper plates adorned with the words “It’s the Freedom for Me.”

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Known as the “Godmother of Juneteenth,” Lee walked 1,400 miles from her native Texas to Washington, D.C., to garner recognition for the holiday in 2016. Lee is still walking now for those who need to be freed from “economic bondage” and because “we have been told that we can’t tell the truth” about American history, she said. “People need to know what has actually happened so that they can heal from it. This is the only way we can be sure that it never happens again.”

Now 95, Lee plans to walk 2.5 miles on Juneteenth weekend to symbolize the two and a half years that passed between President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued on Jan. 1, 1863, and the 1865 day that Juneteenth commemorates. And like those enslaved souls in Texas who celebrated their delayed release from bondage, Black people are still celebrating more than 150 years later — and waiting for freedom.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.