Just like that, we have a new national holiday. Juneteenth.

It’s a celebration of the end of slavery, marking June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Texas, the far western corner of the Confederacy, and gave enslaved people the good news that they had been set free by the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on New Year’s Day two years earlier.

The Maine Legislature passed a bill making June 19 a state holiday, and it was signed last week by Gov. Mills. Meanwhile, Congress, which can’t agree on anything, passed a Juneteenth holiday bill with lightning speed and near unanimity, and it was quickly signed by President Biden and observed on Friday.

So, we have a new holiday, just like that. If you think 156 years qualifies as “just like that.”

The story of how a day most white Northerners had never heard of became a national holiday by acclamation can’t be told without remembering the events of the last year or so.

The murder of George Floyd and the demonstrations that followed led to calls for a reckoning on race. Many white Americans went back to the history books to understand the massive evil that was slavery and its legacies, which are still woven into our institutions today, from the schoolhouse to the White House.


A new holiday seems like a small answer to so much suffering – a cheap gesture that comes with no commitment that things will be different. Some people probably want to celebrate the end of slavery because they feel it lets them off the hook for anything that has happened since.

But even if one new holiday is not enough, it is something to celebrate.

Symbols matter. If the statues of Confederate generals and rebel flags sent a message of intimidation to Black Americans, then a holiday that puts the end of slavery on par with the signing of the Declaration of Independence sends a message, too.

The Confederate monuments weren’t raised during the Civil War, or in the years shortly after it ended. Most were erected right around the turn of the 20th century, by the same people who were imposing Jim Crow segregation in the old Confederacy.

The symbolic act of raising a statue to honor the defenders of slavery reinforced the cultural understanding of racial hierarchy, and that supported the creation and enforcement of exclusionary laws.

The symbolic act of setting a day aside to think about slavery at a time when we are also thinking about policing, mass incarceration, voting rights and economic justice should also show up in our culture and our laws.


And it’s also a reminder that the history of American freedom is not a zero-sum game.

The enslaved people from the Old South aren’t the only ones who benefited from the destruction of slavery and the inspiration of the civil rights movement.

The 14th Amendment, which clarified the status of the freedmen and women after the Civil War, gave citizenship to anyone born on American soil. That has had profound effects on all immigrant families from every continent. Many white Americans can trace their roots to noncitizen forebears, who came here for a better life and established their families through birthright citizenship in a way that would not have been possible in most other countries.

The amendment also promises equal justice under law to everyone, which has led to a number of freedom-expanding Supreme Court opinions, including the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that gave same-sex couples of all races the right to marry.

The legislative victories of the civil rights movement didn’t just affect Black people but also opened doors for women, older Americans and people with disabilities – also regardless of race.

So, if white people get a day off on which we’d otherwise have to work, maybe it will remind us that we don’t have to worry that much about what equality is going to cost us. There really is enough equality to go around.

We’ll see how Juneteenth fits in the story of America’s reckoning with its history on race. If the holiday is the beginning and not the end of the changes, then it will be something we all can celebrate.

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