America is one nation, made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different communities, each with their own traditions and celebrations. Nothing personifies that more than Juneteenth.
For those living in the south and certain other areas of the country, Juneteenth is a well-known, cherished, anticipated date on the calendar. Marking the emancipation of slaves in Texas, it signifies for many the unofficial end of slavery in the country and has been celebrated with parades and commemorations since almost immediately after Union Army General Gordon Granger first read General Order 3 in Galveston, Texas, in 1865.
But for many in the country, June 19 has been no more meaningful than any other day on the calendar.
That has most certainly changed in the last two years.
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden officially signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, making “Juneteenth” the first federal holiday added to the calendar since 1983, when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was recognized. The decision came after years of lobbying from groups who believed Juneteenth worthy of national celebration.
They were right. The addition of the holiday to our calendar should be celebrated. Juneteenth came at the end of the bloodiest war in American history, a conflict fought to end forever the evil institution of slavery. What that day symbolizes should be honored and remembered as a part of our national heritage.
It is for that reason we hope, in the years to come, Juneteenth becomes a unifying, not a dividing, date on the American calendar. There is no reason why this holiday should be defined by disagreement. It’s a day that all Americans should honor.
U.S. history is not all one thing or the other. It is neither perfect nor shameful. The country has battled throughout its existence to live up to those most-lofty goals first identified at its birth, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. As time has marched on, each generation has taken steps forward and backward fighting to realize that promise.
Juneteenth is a part of that story, one that need not be used as a battering ram against political and cultural foes in our current rhetorical wars. We can all be proud of what happened on Juneteenth, and we can all strive to learn more about what happened afterwards — about the promise and ultimate failure of Reconstruction, the painfully-slow fight to make freedom truly free for all Americans, the leaders who sacrificed to make their dreams of equality a reality, and how we, in the 21st century, continue to deal with the impact of events that occurred in the 19th century.
Our history, good and bad, belongs to all of us. We can debate it. We can argue over how much or how little it affects our lives today. But we should embrace it, especially days like June 19 and what occurred in Texas in that fateful moment.
We are most certainly in an arguing mood as a nation at present. In a world where cartoon characters can become the source of angry debate, in a climate increasingly driven by the excesses of social media, where nuance is almost always abandoned in favor of the sensational, it’s no surprise that a new national holiday would be used as yet another topic that divides us.
However, it’s our hope that, eventually, the current mood will pass and when it does, Juneteenth will become as uncontroversial as Memorial Day. It should be seen not only as an occasion to unify around a truly remarkable moment, but also as a chance to learn more about the history that came before and after.