It’s been over 50 years since my grandfather, Reverend Hosea Williams, stood in the streets of the South fighting off police dogs, surrounded by people being killed and beaten in the streets for peacefully protesting. It has been just over two weeks since I, along with many others, was peacefully protesting in Atlanta and the police threw tear gas in our faces. And while we celebrate today how far we have come on this journey to equality, this year has also reminded us how far we have to go.
These past few weeks of protests have again brought to light that what is going on in America is not OK. It’s disappointing and heartbreaking that reminders about social injustice against Black people are still needed, but this country has needed them before. It needed reminders in Selma, it needed reminders in the March on Washington, and today, Juneteenth, shows us that it has always needed reminders.
Juneteenth is a day for us to recognize the physical end of slavery in America. More than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, people in the South still had slaves. Union soldiers made their way to Texas to read federal orders and enforce the proclamation. And it was on June 19, 1865, that Major General Gordon Granger led his soldiers into Galveston, Texas to inform the final group of citizens that the war was over and that the enslaved were now free. It’s this event, the final physical freedom of our people in Galveston, that African Americans have celebrated for 155 years. It’s a day that we began our true independence and started our uphill battle for civil rights.
To me, this day means that people can right their wrongs and change can be made. What has gone on in America is not acceptable. But hopefully one day it can be corrected. Maybe that one day will be in my lifetime, or maybe it will be in my daughter’s lifetime. The protests over the past few weeks have shown that we all hope this country is headed towards reform. We have come together as a nation in a way we never have before. The injustice that has been ignored for decades is being recognized and supported worldwide. Juneteenth is a chance to keep that momentum going and a chance for people who haven’t celebrated the day in the past to do so.
Juneteenth to me is also about freedom. Right now, there are 10 federal holidays recognized by the U.S. One of those is Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, others are more traditional like Thanksgiving and Christmas, and another is Independence Day. Independence Day is the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress and the day we consider to be when our freedom started - which it did, for a territory. But it doesn’t mark the day of freedom for ALL Americans. The day that the final person in America became truly free was, and is, Juneteenth.
Yet, Juneteenth has been celebrated predominantly by African Americans. The country doesn’t collectively pause to recognize Juneteenth. Nobody takes off work or sets off fireworks or invites people to celebrate. But 2020 is different — 2020 is about change. A change of mind, a change of culture, a change of legislation and a change of heart. This year, Juneteenth isn’t just a Black holiday, as it has been for so long. We are going to celebrate it as an American holiday — as the day America set itself free from the evil clutches of its past.
If you’re an American, you should be proud of this day because it was revolutionary. Just like Independence Day, Juneteenth should be celebrated with the same pride and patriotism because it is about freedom for your countrywomen and men.
It’s amazing to see that many companies and now states are recognizing Juneteenth, but it still is not a true federal holiday. It should be. It’s a chance for America to recognize a piece of its history that it often tries to forget. But just like we can’t forget the names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless other Black lives that were lost to social injustice, we can’t forget our past. If we forget what happened, we won’t move forward. Ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s failure.