June 20, 2022
This year, for the first time in Utah – and only the second time at the federal level – Juneteenth is being recognized as an official holiday. The period of late May through the end of July in Utah – beginning with Memorial Day and running through Pioneer Day – can be viewed as a season of patriotism.
It is a period marked by holidays that help us honor our history, acknowledge the accomplishments and frankly admit the failures of our forebears, and look ahead with optimism that we can learn lessons from the past to build a more perfect union. Those federal and/or state holidays include Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day and Pioneer Day. In that spirit, Juneteenth helps complete the season.
Juneteenth is “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.” Despite the effective end of the Civil War in April 1865, and despite the Emancipation Proclamation freeing Black Americans from slavery in rebellious states, slavery in parts of the South such as Texas “remained relatively unaffected.” In June, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state. Shortly after their arrival, on June 19, 1865, U.S. Gen. Gordan Granger publicly read General Order Number 3:
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 labor. 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.
It is only in recent years that Juneteenth has begun to be more broadly recognized for its significance in American history – a long-overdue recognition.
The American Declaration of Independence proclaimed America’s civic philosophy of freedom grounded in aspirational truths of human equality and divinely endowed rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights sought to put that philosophy in practice by building a civic structure designed to perpetuate and enlarge it. Together, these founding ideas and documents remains the lodestar of American patriotism.
However, America’s history is one of an uneven application (often brutally so) of equality and liberty when it comes to Black Americans. This is plain from a broad assortment of historical events scattered throughout the nation’s history: Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”, the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th-15th Amendments, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and countless events in more recent history. These parts of history are to be recognized, learned from, and improved upon.
Making Juneteenth an official holiday offers this opportunity to Utahns regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity or place of residence. During holidays like Independence Day and Pioneer Day, we continue to celebrate the accomplishments of the Founders of our nation and state. But on Juneteenth we can celebrate accomplishments that the Founders failed to achieve, while also recognizing continuing shortfalls in the fulfillment of both equality and liberty that fall to us to resolve if we are to renew the civic vision that brought us what we enjoy today.
For that reason alone, we ought to be grateful for a Juneteenth holiday. Strong and deeply rooted patriotism requires opportunities for both civic humility and civic celebration – the acknowledgment of shortcomings in our community, state and nation while also honoring achievements. Juneteenth contributes to both, and that is why it helps complete our season of patriotism.
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