Analysis Based on factual reporting, although it incorporates the expertise of the author/producer and may offer interpretations and conclusions.
Can Juneteenth Move Beyond Symbolism?
Until the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd and the mass uprising it sparked, most Americans knew little to nothing about Juneteenth. The name Juneteenth is short for June 19, the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Texas were finally informed of the Emancipation Proclamation that ensured their freedom—almost two and a half years after it was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
In June 2021, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday and calling it “A day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country—what I’ve long called America’s original sin.”
This year, as Juneteenth falls on Father’s Day, cities around the country are marking the day with festivals, block parties, concerts, and more. But, as Biden said in his proclamation, slavery has left behind a “long legacy of systemic racism, inequality, and inhumanity,” which the federal holiday and yearly celebrations do little to address.
To understand the history and significance of Juneteenth and what it will take to move beyond symbolism, YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar spoke with Dr. Yohuru Williams, distinguished university chair and professor of history and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas. Williams is the author of Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Black Panthers in New Haven and Rethinking the Black Freedom Movement: American Social and Political Movements of the 20th Century.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sonali Kolhatkar: African Americans have been celebrating Juneteenth for a very long time. How do you explain it to someone who may still be unfamiliar with it?
Yohuru Williams: Juneteenth really came into national consciousness in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Floyd is murdered in May 2020, and Juneteenth is typically celebrated on June 19. So, the murder of George Floyd and the racial unrest that happened in the country coming in such close proximity to Juneteenth—with so much emphasis at that time on longstanding issues with regard to police brutality and housing and the social determinants of health—put a renewed focus on Juneteenth as a holiday, as part of this kind of racial reckoning.
What ended up happening, at least in 2020, is that it brought attention to a holiday which was very widely acknowledged and celebrated in the African American community. June 19, or Juneteenth as it’s called, is the day that slavery was officially abolished in Texas. It’s the result of [General] Gordon Granger’s field order, which basically extended the Emancipation Proclamation to Texas [in 1865].
The important thing to note about that is, often when people talk about emancipation, they talk about the end of the Civil War, and they tend to think about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery. And Lincoln issues that in January of 1863.
The reality is that the Union Army was the guarantor of the Emancipation Proclamation. And so, often what would happen is, the Emancipation Proclamation was basically ignored unless the Union Army came in and actively took steps to ensure that the slaves who were living in that area were freed.
That’s certainly what happens with Texas. And so, the reason it becomes kind of synonymous with Emancipation Day and emancipation celebrations is that Texas is the last holdout. It is, in some sense, seen as the last bastion [of slavery], and this is the last effort by the Union Army under Granger to free the slaves in that area.
So, it’s really Emancipation Day in Texas, but it’s been adopted by African American communities as a whole to symbolize the meaning of freedom for all African Americans in that moment.
Is it Possible to Realize the Unfulfilled Promise of Juneteenth? from Rising Up With Sonali on Vimeo.
Kolhatkar: Do you think that it is a more appropriate day to celebrate American independence than July 4?
Williams: I think there’s room for both. A lot of people on the Fourth of July, they often read a document, a speech like Frederick Douglass’ “What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” in which Douglass ponders the meaning of the Fourth of July and a celebration of freedom for people who are held in human bondage, completely contrary to the values espoused by the founders in the Declaration of Independence and even in the preambles of the Constitution itself.
So now, if you celebrate both Juneteenth as Emancipation Day and then you celebrate the Fourth of July, it’s kind of completing this arc and telling the story about the paradox of American slavery and American freedom: a freedom that’s built on human bondage, on the inequality that’s imposed on, at the time of the Civil War, four and a half million African slaves.
We would like for this holiday to pivot around some deeper commitment to racial justice.
And then this idea of, “If not reconciliation, at least evolution,” that what you have in 1865, by virtue not of the Civil War, but by virtue of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, is a new birth of freedom. In fact, more appropriately, it’s the 14th Amendment, which confers citizenship on the former freedmen, that becomes this kind of new baseline for freedom.
Kolhatkar: Let’s get into the disconnect between stated ideals and reality, which seems to be a constant tension in this country right [now]. We have stated ideals that we as a nation have not lived up to on racial justice. When President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday last year, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “We must continue to work to ensure equal justice.” So, they created a holiday but didn’t really give it any teeth beyond the fact that federal workers can take the day off. Why is that?
Williams: It’s appropriate in the sense that, like any other federal holiday, it’s dependent on whether it’s adopted by [all] employers, and so on and so forth. And you’ve seen this kind of embrace of Juneteenth, particularly in the aftermath of George Floyd, that wasn’t there before—the federal holiday status is important.
There was some real concern in the African American community. And the same thing happened a few years back when there was this fight for [the] Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to commemorate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that if the holiday is simply about people taking the day off, it doesn’t really commit anyone to active memory about why the holiday is significant—unlike the Fourth of July, where you’re celebrating, in some sense, the United States winning its independence from Great Britain.
What you’re talking about [regarding your question about Juneteenth] is the aftermath of the imposition of chattel slavery in the United States and the continuing lingering harm and trauma that’s been created by that.
And so, there are a lot who made the case that, “No, we want the federal holiday, we appreciate that recognition of this as an emancipatory moment. At the same time, we would like for this holiday to pivot around some deeper commitment to racial justice, and to dismantling systemic racism and systemic injustice in ways that are meaningful, that will put some real meaning behind the language and the aspirational language of the Declaration of Independence so that it really applies to American society and culture.”
And the only way that that’ll be possible [is to have] real change, in the African American community in particular, around housing, education, access to places of public accommodation, dealing with issues associated with the social determinants of health. And for a lot of people right now, what’s most visible are the challenges associated with police brutality and the treatment of Black and Brown people in public spaces.
Kolhatkar: We also have resurgent violent White supremacy, as demonstrated by the massacre in Buffalo, New York, where a White supremacist killer targeted elderly Black people.
Williams: This is the interesting thing about our contemporary moment: If we think back to [the 2015 mass shooting in] Mother Emanuel [Church] in South Carolina and playing that forward to [the 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery in] Georgia, and playing that forward to Buffalo this year, violence has always been the response to agitation on the part of African Americans, in particular, for civil rights, for change.
And so, this is something that we associate with moments like this in our history. In the aftermath of the Civil War, there was tremendous violence that took place in the South to try to deny African Americans the opportunity to enjoy the full fruits of their freedom. Certainly, during the civil rights movement, tremendous violence accompanied the push for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We teach our history honestly. That’s when we’re in the best position to really evolve our democracy.
In fact, we associate with the passage of those two major pieces of legislation infamous murders, which really spurred the government to action in those moments, including the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson and, in 1965, the beating of John Lewis and others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that would become the impetus for [President Lyndon B.] Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. In our contemporary moment, we have so much legislation that still needs to be passed, so much conversation about the George Floyd [Justice in] Policing Act and dealing with that issue.
This feels a lot like the backlash that we tend to associate with periods like this in our history where there seems to be tremendous gain, but then there’s—as Nina Simone famously put in her song “Backlash Blues”—that results in this kind of rising tide of resentment and anger, which often results in violence.
Kolhatkar: Understanding what Juneteenth is requires learning history. This is your field, which is under attack from the right as part of its ongoing culture wars for at least the past two years. How have the attacks on critical race theory, and on history in general, made it harder for historians like yourself to explore Juneteenth?
Williams: Well, it’s made it really difficult, and it’s definitely part of the backlash. So, if we go back to 2017, for example, the big conversation nationally was around Confederate monuments, and that at its core is a question of history, contested history: this idea that the Confederate flag flying above state houses in the South is a symbol of Southern heritage rather than a symbol of White terror. And I think that the January 6 insurrection made clear when those rioters came to the Capitol bearing symbols of White supremacy, the noose and the Confederate flag, what that heritage, and what that history, is.
At the same time, there’s been this assault on the teaching of African American history, packaged under the propaganda [around what] critical race theory is, which has nothing to do with what’s taught in K-12 education. Critical race theory is a lens adopted by legal scholars that puts race at the center as a method of analysis for fundamentally asking about why, in spite of so much legislation in the 1960s, had there been no real substantive gains in conquering racial inequality in America. That’s not what’s taught in K-12 education.
As for myself, recently, I had an opportunity to go down to Florida after they canceled a professional development with a college professor and a teacher that was supposed to be on the teaching of the civil rights movement. And what the district officials found objectionable in the materials that had been put together for that professional development was that the teacher had included an image of Colin Kaepernick taking the knee alongside images of peaceful protesters from the civil rights movement. And I found that interesting, because how are you supposed to discuss the civil rights movement without talking about the strategies and tactics adopted by activists in that moment to raise consciousness about what was happening to African Americans in the United States at that time?
What we need in our country right now is a movement for social justice that’s sustainable and longitudinal.
I ended up, when I went down [to Florida], talking about another moment in our history, and that was the Challenger [disaster]. And the reason that I mentioned and thought it would be appropriate to talk about that with those teachers is, it’s something that happened in Florida, but it’s an interesting moment: If you were to look at the crew of the Challenger spacecraft that was supposed to go up in 1986, that unfortunately exploded shortly after takeoff, it’s a portrait of America that really represents the America that I’d like to live in.
We often think about that moment because of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher in space. But Ellison Onizuka, a Japanese American, was part of that trip, [along] with two women: Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnik, who was of Jewish ancestry. You’ve got Ronald McNair, African American, man of color, descendant of sharecroppers [who were] enslaved.
That’s a portrait of America that we aspire to. But the only way that we can tell that as a story of triumph is if we honestly tell the story of the individuals there that day. The repression that African Americans in American history [faced], the repression that Asian Americans, particularly Japanese and Chinese Americans on the West Coast faced—the Japanese internment, the denial of their ability to own a home, and residential segregation—to the challenges that people of Jewish ancestry faced. So, we teach our history honestly. That’s when we’re in the best position to really evolve our democracy and republican form of government. We can’t do that by hiding our history.
In fact, one of the interesting things that I told those Florida educators is if they don’t believe me, they can quote the patron saint of conservatism, Ronald Reagan. After the Challenger went down, he had the unenviable task of addressing the American people that evening about what they saw. And in this very powerful speech that’s crafted by Peggy Noonan, the president says—and he’s trying to make this contrast between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at that time [paraphrasing]: “We don’t hide things. We don’t run from our mistakes. We do it the way a democracy should do it, up front and in public.”
“That’s the way freedom is,” he says, and I quote, “and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.”
To those who try to argue that we shouldn’t be teaching difficult aspects of our history, talking about African American history, and want to decry that as critical race theory, allow me to quote [paraphrase] Ronald Reagan: “We don’t hide from our history. We have to face it and take it on. That’s how democracy grows. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Kolhatkar: What do you think that we need to be thinking about as a country when we celebrate Juneteenth this year? It’s been two years since George Floyd’s killing. The racial justice uprisings seemed to be a pivotal moment in the United States with unprecedented numbers—millions of Americans marching all over the country—police brutality seemed to be laid bare. And then it sort of slipped away. The call to “defund the police” got ridiculed, and now we’re seeing Liberals and Democrats worried about supposedly rising crime rates, saying that “No, we must continue to invest in police.” It seems as though we had this moment of epiphany about racial justice two years ago, but it’s slipping away.
Williams: Well, and this is the difficult challenge ahead of us and the problem with Americans. I [want to] quote William Dean Howells’ famous advice to Edith Wharton as she was beginning her writing career, he said to her: “Recognize that the American public always wants a tragedy with a happy ending.”
Our narrative is always: We were in this place and then some piece of legislation or some charismatic leader came along and we changed for the better. And we don’t revisit the ugliness that proves that these are a lot of unfinished revolutions that we’re still dealing with in terms of our history and culture.
Certainly, that’s the case with Reconstruction: unfinished business. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments are insufficient to ensure absolute equality before the law for African Americans. And that’s why we find ourselves in the conundrum we find ourselves in today.
One could make the argument that it’s the same thing for the women’s rights movement. If the 19th Amendment had been so effective, we wouldn’t still be talking about ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment] and the challenges to hinder equality today. So, our desire for tragedy to have a happy ending, our desire to say, “You know, George Floyd was murdered, but look at all the change that’s happened since then,” undermines our ability to do the deeper, substantive work necessary to make real change.
I’ll give you a very good example. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, in June of 2020, Al Sharpton came to Minneapolis and delivered a memorial service for Floyd in which he talked about “a different time, and a different season.” He said [paraphrasing], “When I looked out and I saw in some cases, young Whites outnumbering the Blacks marching, it was a different time, a different season.” That’s a great narrative, and it certainly was true at that moment. But if it’s not sustainable, then the reality is, what it is, is a moment and not a movement.
What we need in our country right now is a movement for social justice that’s sustainable and longitudinal. And it can’t be about grand gestures like acknowledging Juneteenth as a holiday. It can’t be about statements that businesses and corporations put out, affirming their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It can’t simply be about Facebook posts and social media activism.
It really has to be about taking on the deeper structural challenges that continue to create inequality and promote inequality in our society as a whole. And that’s not going to be a tragedy with a happy ending. That’s going to be a lot of hard work.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com