Joe Biden has called on Americans to “eradicate systemic racism” in his proclamation recognising Juneteenth, the nation’s oldest-celebrated holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the US, and the nation’s newest federal holiday.
“I call upon the people of the United States to acknowledge and celebrate the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of Black Americans, and commit together to eradicate systemic racism that still undermines our founding ideals and collective prosperity,” he said in a proclamation issued on 18 June.
On Thursday, the president signed into law a measure that creates Juneteenth – which commemorates the end of enslavement in Texas and is now widely recognised as a celebration of African American emancipation – as the nation’s 11th federal holiday.
The measure was approved by Congress earlier this week, with swift and unanimous passage in the US Senate and bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, following years of organising among Black Americans and several legislatives attempts.
Juneteenth – a portmanteau of June and 19th – was first celebrated on 19 June 1866, one year after the arrival of Union troops in the Confederate stronghold of Texas announced that enslaved people were now free. The announcement arrived two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and the the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the US, wasn’t passed by Congress until 31 January 1865.
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 in the Civil War’s aftermath subjected harsh penalties for newly freed Black Americans for crimes like loitering or breaking curfew.
The practice of “convict leasing” prisoners for labour to build railways and mines, among other private construction projects, became ”slavery by another name” that echoes in today’s mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts Black Americans.
Democratic lawmakers are now mulling whether to revise the 13th Amendment with an “abolition amendment” to end the practise of forced labour. A resolution was introduced last year but languished in Congress.
“On Juneteenth, we recommit ourselves to the work of equity, equality, and justice,” Mr Biden said in his order. “And, we celebrate the centuries of struggle, courage, and hope that have brought us to this time of progress and possibility. That work has been led throughout our history by abolitionists and educators, civil rights advocates and lawyers, courageous activists and trade unionists, public officials, and everyday Americans who have helped make real the ideals of our founding documents for all.”
He added that the nation “still has work to do”, pointing to the aftermath of the Covid-19 public health crisis and disproportionate impacts among Black Americans and Indigenous groups.
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