Juneteenth is the second 4th of July for many African Americans
Image by Wynn Pointaux from Pixabay
I’m not opposed to a new national holiday—we’ve got 12 now—and as the U.S. is the most overworked nation in the world, I’m all for a mandated day off.
But let’s not laud this week’s congressional passage of the Juneteenth bill as a sign that bipartisan rapport is back. If anything, it’s a moment of public comity obscuring the continued challenges to our democracy posed by the past four years.
Juneteenth, which has its federal debut today (Saturday), commemorates June 19, 1895, the day Union soldiers told enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that they had been freed— two months after the Confederacy surrendered–and 2 ½ years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved blacks in the Southern states.
It marks the 150th anniversary of the end of bondage and the hope of newly freed blacks that they would be fully protected by law with have access to all the opportunities of their fellow Americans. It’s a second 4th of July for many African Americans that other Americans will now be aware of, adding complexity to the multicolored tapestry of U.S. history
On signing the bill into law Thursday, President Joe Biden enthused about the overwhelming backing for the holiday.
“I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another, ” he said, adding that the new holiday– officially the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act”– will be “a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take.”
Certainly, congressional action was disarming. The Senate unanimously passed the bill Tuesday establishing the federal holiday; the House followed suit Wednesday, 415 to 14.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death last year, the massive protests that erupted across the nation afterward, and the support for Black Lives Matter, it’s not a stretch that most national lawmakers would want to be seen as on the upside of the arc of justice, at least a little while.
After all, it wasn’t a heavy lift to vote for the new federal holiday.
Juneteenth is already a recognized holiday in 49 states and the District of Columbia; though only a handful, including Texas, provide a paid holiday for state employees. In 2020, a Harris poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans thought Juneteenth should be a national holiday, closing all non-essential federal government offices, halting stock market trading, and paying all federal government employees for their day off. Twitter, Nike, and the National Football League observe the day with a paid holiday.
So the 14 Republican representatives who voted against Juneteenth scrambled to explain their “nay” votes.
In a statement, Rep. Matt Rosendale, Republican of Montana, laid the holiday at the feet of a U.S. history that is rooted in the centrality of slavery:
“This is an effort by the Left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country. Since I believe in treating everyone equally, regardless of race, and that we should be focused on what unites us rather than our differences, I will vote no.”
Some favored an emancipation day holiday, just not one with the word “independence” in it.
“I fully support creating a day to celebrate the abolition of slavery, a dark portion of our nation’s history,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., on the House floor. “However, naming this day ‘national independence day’ will create confusion and push Americans to pick one of those two days as their independence day based on their racial identity. Why can’t we name this ’emancipation day’ and come together as Americans and celebrate that day together as Americans?”
The 14 opponents of the holiday, however, represent something far more troublesome for democracy than specious reasoning.
They, and not a few of their colleagues, are all from states that would endorse differences, regard race, and undermine access to the fundamental freedoms that those newly freed African Americans dreamed of 150 years ago, most importantly access to the franchise~ the right to vote.
To date, states have enacted more than 20 laws that make it harder for citizens to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute based in New York and Washington, D.C.
And more such laws are in the pipeline, with 389 restrictive bills in 48 states making their way through this year’s state legislatures. Restrictions range from reducing poll locations and hours, requiring tighter voter IDs for in-person voting, increasing voter roll purges, expanding the power of poll watchers to aggressively interrogate voters, and banning snacks and water from voters waiting in line to vote.
Think about that last one.
Consider the record number of Americans – nearly 160 million—who stood in long lines during early voting in the 2020 presidential election.
In Georgia, African Americans, in record numbers, waited in line for up to 10 hours before they cast their ballots. That faith, that determination, that belief in the highest aspirations of our democracy turned a red state purple.
Juneteenth. 4th of July. No confusion. No separation.
Freedom and independence is to be celebrated always and in every way.
Happy Juneteenth to my fellow Americans.
It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983 and here is the list of the 14 Republicans who voted against it:
- Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.
- Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.
- Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.
- Tom Tiffany, R-Wis.
- Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.
- Mike Rogers, R-Ala.
- Ralph Norman, R-S.C.
- Chip Roy, R-Texas
- Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.
- Tom McClintock, R-Calif.
- Matt Rosendale, R-Mont.
- Ronny Jackson, R-Texas
- Thomas Massie, R-Ky.
- Andrew Clyde, R-Ga.
Proposed laws to make it harder to vote
|Shorten window to apply for a mail ballot||AL HB 538, AR SB 643, GA SB 202, IA SF 413, KY HB 574, OK HB 2663|
|Shorten deadline to deliver mail ballot||AR SB 643|
|Make it harder to remain on absentee voting lists||AZ SB 1485, FL SB 90|
|Eliminate or limit sending mail ballot applications to voters who do not specifically request them||GA SB 202, IA SF 413, KS HB 2332|
|Eliminate or limit sending mail ballots to voters who do not specifically request them||FL SB 90|
|Restrict assistance in returning a voter’s mail ballot||AR HB 1715, FL SB 90, IA SF 413, KS HB 2183, KY HB 574, MT SB 530|
|Limit the number, location, or availability of mail ballot drop boxes||FL SB 90, GA SB 202, IA SF 413, IN SB 398|
|Impose stricter signature requirements for mail ballots||AZ SB 1003, ID HB 290, KS HB 2183|
|Tighten or impose voter ID requirements for mail voting||FL SB 90, GA SB 202, MT SB 169|
|Tighten or impose voter ID requirements for in-person voting||AR HB 1112, AR HB 1244, MT SB 169, WY HB 75|
|Expand voter purges or risk faulty voter purges||IA SF 413, FL SB 90, KY HB 574, UT HB 12|
|Ban snacks and water to voters waiting in line||FL SB 90, GA SB 202|
|Eliminate Election Day registration||MT HB 176|
|Reduce polling place availability (locations or hours)||IA SF 413, MT SB 196|
|Limit early voting days or hours||GA SB 202, IA SF 413|
Karen DeWitt has a long distinguished career as a journalist, covering politics, but also has worked on political campaigns. She compares the later to the labor of a Hebrew working for the Pharaoh. She’s covered the White House and the national politics for The New York Times; foreign affairs and the White House for USA TODAY before joining that newspaper’s management as an assistant managing editor. She switched to television as a senior producer for ABC’s Nightline, where she wrote and produced the award-winning, Found Voices about the digitization of 1930s and 1940s interviews with former slaves. She returned to newspapers, as Washington editor for the Examiner newspaper and eventually left to help on local political campaigns. She has several blogs, but contributes mostly to a food blog called “I don’t speak cuisine” at peacecorpsworldwide.org and theroot.com.