Juneteenth Is Now a Federal Holiday, So What Do We Do Next?
By: Katrina Hasan Hamilton, Council Member, MPAC’s AAMIC
After more than six years of Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s work and advocacy to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday, the 117th Congress of the United States of America, passed S. 475 Juneteenth National Independence Day, making it the 12th federal holiday celebrated in the United States. Congresswoman Jackson proudly stated that “Juneeteenth is the living symbol of Lincoln’s promise that this nation, under God, ‘would have a new birth of freedom’”.
President Biden courageously signed the bill into law acknowledging the moral stain of slavery and the need for reckoning — all commendable efforts. As we thank Congresswoman Sheila Jackson (D-TX 18) — who we absolutely respect — Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) for leading the effort, we must also understand that recognizing June 19th, 1865 is just the tip of the iceberg. Especially considering the historical context of Juneteenth, which began as a state holiday honoring the freedom of Texas Black slaves, who were informed two years after emancipation that slavery ended. Not to mention the fact that President Lincoln was assassinated two months prior to their message of freedom.
Slavery is a moral stain that deserves more than a federal holiday. The moral stain of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is in need of a moral reckoning that includes a formal apology from all symbolic actors involved, including the United States of America. African Americans have been patient for hundreds of years and all of the holidays in the world cannot and will not take the place of an official apology from the United States government.
The acknowledgement, the apology, and issuing of reparations to African descendants in America for a crime that happened over 400 years ago and ended only 154 years ago is what true gratitude entails. Listen, it took 40 years for the world and Germany to apologize to Israel and Jewish descendants throughout the world for the horrific acts of the Nazi Holocaust. It also took less than 50 years for the United States to issue a formal apology and reparations in the amount of $20,000 to each of the living victims and descendants of Japanese-Americans for the gross mistreatment of their American ancestors during World War II. Yet, some folks are still asking Black people in our great country to be grateful for this federal holiday and to remain patient.
When waiting on change on the federal level, African Americans have been more than patient. We as a group still do not have solid and sustainable protections that guarantee our voting rights, which were promised by the Civil Rights Act 1964. We still do not have a federal anti-hate bill that would make it a federal crime to murder Black people on account of their race, as did the Georgian father-son vigilante duo who killed Ahmad Aubrey simply for running while Black. In contrast we now have federal anti-hate bills that rightfully speak out against COVID anti-Asian hate. This is commendable, but again, what are we doing about ending modern day lynching of Black bodies across the U.S. in 2021?
Jubilance, rather, true celebration, comes in the form of each and every one of us making a commitment on a local, state and national level to end anti-Black racism in politics, in schools, and in our very houses of worship and organizations. By looking into our own hearts, we must stop stereotyping African American people as people who are lazy, shiftless, and don’t want to do anything. Both immigrants and non-immigrants who make it in this country must acknowledge and understand the systemic racism that impacts families of African descent here in this country, particularly Black Americans.
We must also remember 94-year-old Opal Lee, to whom, in spite of the historical context of Juneteenth, I am personally grateful for advocating for this bill. Ms. Lee deserved the honor to witness President Biden sign Juneteenth into federal law. Especially when over 83 years ago on June 19th, a then 9-year-old Opal and her family moved into an all-White neighborhood in Texas. Her family had just purchased a brand new home and lost everything due to anti-Black racism and hate. You see, Ms. Opal’s White neighbors burned down the home, leaving the family without protection from law enforcement, or for that matter, anyone else. Her family, much like 107-year-old Viola Fletcher of the Tulsa Massacre, whose family also lost their home and entire community when she was just 7 years old, were forced to sneak out in the middle of the night to abandon their entire possessions. In both cases, family homes were burned down and there was nothing left to pass down to her and her siblings or for that matter, their grandchildren, and great grandchildren. In this case, the American dream achieved was a dangerous reality.
So in honor of Ms. Lee, Ms. Fletcher, and all of the countless African Americans who are still here, unlike my parents and grandparents, it’s time that we as a people, descendants of Black Africans brought here against our own free will, are issued comprehensive justice. We need federal laws that will protect our voting rights and our lives. We need the Senate to pass the George Floyd Policing Act as quickly as they did the Juneteenth Independence Day Bill. We need a national Ahmaud Arbery anti-Black hate crime bill; Senator Warnock, I see you and Insh’Allah will reach out to you more about this after first contacting Ms. Cooper-Jones. Lastly, we as American people of African descent, who have patiently waited for hundreds of years, are due a formal apology and compensation in the form of reparations before the end of the year.