En español | As a young girl growing up in rural Alabama, I learned about the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, to free the slaves. But I also learned, much to my dismay, that when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, it didn’t end slavery in every state, only those controlled by the Confederacy.
It wasn’t until Major General Gordon Granger stood before a crowd in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and read General Orders, No. 3, which began by stating “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free” — that the last remaining slaves in the U.S. were actually freed.
Today, 155 years later, we still celebrate June 19th as Juneteenth, which eventually spread across the country from its Texas origins. It’s also known as Black Independence Day, Freedom Day and Emancipation Day. It is seen as a time for reflection and assessment, for focusing on education and achievement, and for self-improvement and for looking ahead to the future.
Juneteenth takes on added significance this year in light of the tragic death of George Floyd, and the ongoing peaceful protests that have followed calling for social justice and the right for everyone to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As people in communities across the country celebrate this occasion, let us also use this moment as a time of reflection and resolve. Let’s use this as a time to examine our own attitudes and behaviors, to recognize and overcome our own personal prejudices and biases, to become more receptive, welcoming and accepting of our differences and to appeal to, as Lincoln said, “the better angels of our nature.”
Because of COVID-19, many communities were forced to cancel or scale back their Juneteenth celebrations. But the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is filling the void and holding a virtual event, “Juneteenth: A Celebration of Resilience,” which anyone can join throughout the day. Go online to https://nmaahc.si.edu/ to take a virtual tour of the museum’s Juneteenth exhibit and then design your own celebration through online experiences, activities and videos.
Juneteenth reminds us that when we are fighting against any kind of social injustice, we cannot be complacent. Laws and proclamations are important steps, but they don’t right all of the wrongs all at once. Attitudes and behaviors typically don’t change overnight.
Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph observed that “Freedom is never granted; it is won.” So, as we celebrate Juneteenth 2020 — this “Freedom Day” — let’s remember that winning our freedoms begins with each of us. Living in a democracy means more than voting on Election Day. It requires standing up for what we believe in, every day. It requires working every day to make our communities and this country more just, resilient and united as a nation. And it requires working every day to cast aside inequities and disparities, and open social, economic and political opportunities to all people living in the land of the free and the home of the brave.