Juneteenth: How the fight for a national holiday has gained momentum

Lawmakers propose legislation to create federal holiday to recognise liberation

Opal Lee has trekked across the US from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington DC, twice, to pressure lawmakers and the White House to recognise Juneteenth as a national holiday.

Now 93 years old, the longtime community organiser will make a much shorter but equally urgent journey, a 2.5-mile cross-town march trailed by a caravan of hundreds of cars.

The annual Fort Worth Juneteenth Celebration has grown from a single-day community picnic to weekend-long festival with a parade, pageant, golf tournament and other events.

Her campaign is part of the national momentum, propelled by mass protests against racial injustice and the killings of black Americans, for federal recognition of the date commemorating the emancipation of African Americans from enslavement. Proponents have struggled to answer why the liberation of Americans isn't widely celebrated.

Several legislative efforts to mark the holiday over the years have stalled, though Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called for Juneteenth to become a national holiday when he met Ms Lee in 2019.

Every year, Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced a measure to recognise Juneteenth. Her bill this year has 200 co-sponsors.

Now, this year, Senate Democrats Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Tina Smith and Ed Markey, as well as Texas Senator John Cornyn, also plan to file legislation.

The last time Congress approved a national holiday was in 1983 to designate Martin Luther King Jr Day on the third Monday of January.

"There is a clear and urgent need for leaders at every level to come together, and to deliver the change that we need to deliver, in order to match up with our ideals," Senator Cornyn said in a statement.

Following the killing of Martin Luther King Jr, his Poor People's Campaign continued, holding a massive Solidarity Rally on Juneteenth after his death.

While there began a movement to create a Martin Luther King Jr Day, groups across the US also worked to create national days of observance for Juneteenth.

Though 47 states and Washington DC recognise Juneteenth as a state holiday for public observance, it is not a public or federal holiday, like Independence Day, which recognises the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July just a few weeks later.

But unlike the Fourth of July, which initially recognised the "freedoms" of only some Americans, Juneteenth serves as a "second Independence Day," or Freedom Day.

Ms Lee's Change.org petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday has gathered more than 320,000 signatures arguing that emancipation should be celebrated among all Americans.

"I believe Juneteenth can be a unifier because it recognises that slaves didn't free themselves and that they had help, from Quakers along the Underground Railroad, abolitionists both black and white like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, soldiers and many others who gave their lives for the freedom of the enslaved," she said.

This week, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said he would support legislation to make Juneteenth a state holiday with a paid day off for some state employees.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also said he will sign an executive order declaring it a state holiday and will support legislation to make it a permanent state holiday beginning next year.

Several companies, including Twitter, Nike and the National Football League, also announced that Juneteenth will be paid company holidays following nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Across the US, organisers will hold marches, vigils and celebrations, from a Freedom Day March in Washington DC to block parties and memorials across New York City.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump told the Wall Street Journal that — because he had planned to hold his first campaign rally in months on 19 June in Tulsa, Oklahoma — he made Juneteenth "very famous" and claimed that "nobody had ever heard of it", though the day has been recognised for more than 150 years.

His campaign moved the rally to 20 June, but not until he endured massive backlash for racial insensitivity and allegations of white supremacist dog whistling for choosing his return to campaigning on the holiday, in a city that recently recognised the 99th anniversary of a massacre led by a white mob that killed dozens of black residents.

Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when 2,000 Union Army soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, where officials did not recognise manumission under the state's Confederate constitution.

In his order, Gen Gordon Granger announced that "the people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free".

"This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labour," he continued.

But the announcement arrived more than two years following then-president Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which signalled the end of slavery in the US but did not end the enslavement of all people in the nation at the time, contrary to its legacy.

Although the proclamation was issued on 1 September 1862, it didn't go into effect until 1 January 1863. The war raged on for more than two more years.

The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which formally abolished slavery in the US, wasn't passed by Congress until 31 January 1865. It was ratified later that year.

Meanwhile, roughly 200,000 black men had enlisted among the Union ranks in the months before Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia on 9 April.

Slavers in southern states migrated west to the Confederacy stronghold of Texas, along with thousands of enslaved people they had taken with them.

For the more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas upon the Union Army's arrival, General Granger's order didn't instantly release them from their chains; many slavers suppressed the news to the people they enslaved.

The general's order also added that "the freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

Slavery's formal end ushered in a decade of Reconstruction, which sought the continued emancipation of black Americans and inclusion of the secessionist states into the US amid white supremacist paramilitary terror and a devastated post-war economy.

While the 13th Amendment prohibited the enslavement of Americans, it exempted slavery for those convicted of a crime. "Black codes" in economically devastated southern states subjected harsh penalties for newly freed black Americans for crimes like loitering or breaking curfew, ensuring they would remain in chains for decades to follow.

The practice of "convict leasing" prisoners for labour to build railways and mines, among other private construction projects, became "slavery by another name" that is echoed in today's mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts black Americans. Brutal, racist Jim Crow laws and legalised segregation followed, with the Civil Rights Movement delivering the Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act more than 100 years following Lincoln's address.

Born in 1926, Ms Lee grew up under the spectre of slavery — her grandparents descended from enslaved people, and when she was 12 years old, white rioters set fire to her home on 19 June 1939.

She later earned a master's degree in counselling, worked as as school teacher and social worker, coordinated a community food bank, helped establish a housing organisation, and continues to deliver meals to older neighbours while keeping up with her Juneteenth campaign.

In 2016, at 90 years old, Ms Lee marched to Washington DC to demand a National Day of Observance for Juneteenth. She made the trip again in 2019.

Her 2.5-mile walk symbolises the two and a half years enslaved people in Texas waited for their liberation.

The urgency for Juneteenth's recognition this year follows waves of demonstrations demanding, once again, the dismantling of institutional and systemic racism.

"We've been going through these kinds of things — it's like a circle," Ms Lee told The Dallas Morning News. "We get a few privileges, and then it seems to be going on and on."

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