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The Juneteenth holiday is a stark reminder of how far we have to go


Juneteenth marks our country’s second Independence Day. That fact in itself calls on us to remember, reflect, and recommit to the principles of our democracy – liberty and justice for all – but ones that we have never fully embodied. When the United States ordered the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas on June 19, 1865, it recommitted to its foundational principles of freedom and equal justice. In recognizing Juneteenth, we must also acknowledge that the fight for freedom did not end in 1865. Freedom must be redefined to include the dismantling of systemic barriers that continue to oppress Black Americans and still permeate our society.

We must continue advocating policies that move us towards racial equity and celebrate the victories our communities have struggled for. The United States stands at a crossroads, presented with a choice between upholding the values of freedom and justice for all, or discarding them.

Our history should serve as motivation and a guide toward a more just future. Nevertheless, extremist lawmakers across the country at various levels of government are taking aim at U.S. history and African American studies curricula, hoping we might mistake the brutality of American slavery and the freedom celebrated today. Their hope is to instill amnesia surrounding the historical trauma of savagery and injustice in America’s past that will deaden our sense for fairness in the present.

We must fight back against this erasure and a revisionist history. These deniers don’t seek to educate our country, they seek to desecrate our country. Defending Black history has never been more critical; schools across the United States would rather sanitize our history than heed its lessons. We must call these efforts what they are: radical attempts to weaken the resolve of those who seek justice. We need to allow children to learn in an environment that prepares them for the challenge of living in a democracy. This means confronting the harsh realities of when our government was the furthest thing from a democracy for Indigenous people, African Americans, and women. Some are uncomfortable when they encounter the facts of slavery. Juneteenth reminds us that the triumph of liberation came after the evil of that institution. Our kids deserve the full picture.   

Juneteenth is a celebration of African Americans securing freedom out of bondage, and reminds us we need not accept exploitation unchallenged, whether it be slavery or its legacy through the criminal legal system. And in a society where modern-day slavery is most exemplified in America’s prison system – which disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities in the United States with over incarceration – we must pay incarcerated workers a fair wage. We must do more than just limit prison pipelines and unnecessary punitive sentences – we must also treat incarcerated people with respect, fairness and dignity. When individuals are released from incarceration, the opportunities for employment are limited and the challenges to find jobs are numerous.

Ending the abuse of solitary confinement must happen – and like offering a fare wage to those inside and outside of the walls – will take partnership. America’s prisons and detention facilities over-rely on solitary confinement as a punitive measure, though it is really an extreme measure that disproportionately impacts Black incarcerated individuals.

When the first Juneteenth celebration occurred one hundred and fifty-eight years ago in Galveston, Texas, attendees – both Black and White – were filled with joy about their freedom, but also a giant shift in American society, the end of slavery. Since then, Juneteenth has continued to be a celebration of freedom and of community centered in backyard barbecues, churches, community centers and parks, including the long ongoing celebration in Roxbury at Franklin Park. 

Now, as a federal holiday, it is incumbent upon all Americans to truthfully acknowledge and understand our past and how it affects our present and our future. Our hope is that as all Americans continue to embrace the celebration, there must always be an acknowledgement of the injustices we as a nation and African Americans have overcome, and a commitment to how much further we need to go together. Making Juneteenth a federal holiday will not right all the wrongs of the past or fix what remains broken. But it is an important step. It is the truth of our history and the missing half of the story of our nation’s freedom and independence.

Senator Markey is the Senate co-author of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, legislation that President Biden signed into law making Juneteenth a federal holiday

Rahsaan Hall is the President and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts

juneteenth, opinion, Rahsaan Hall, Sen. Edward Markey