Just about any symbolic gesture against racism is liable to become obligatory for politicians and organizations these days. In a way that’s good — a sign of the ever-more-complete consensus that the harm of racism must be understood and addressed.
Juneteenth for more than a century has been an annual celebration by Blacks of the emancipation of slaves at the conclusion of the Civil War. It was born of the heartfelt joy of finally being free, a feeling of liberation that only former slaves and their descendants could experience directly. That affirmation of liberty strengthened the struggle by Blacks to overcome racism through the civil rights movement and beyond, renewed each year in their Juneteenth activities.
The day has been something Blacks owned, sharing its pure spirit each year. We hope Juneteenth and its focus on accomplished liberty aren’t diminished by its inevitable change into an official holiday, by efforts to organize and control it, or even by people trying to profit from it.
The first Juneteenth, before it was given the name, took place in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, two months after the surrender of the Confederate Army ended the Civil War. Union soldiers arrived and started enforcing President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that had largely been ignored in the South.
The suddenly former slaves were jubilant. They could gather to share this thrill of a lifetime. They could leave the plantations and many did immediately, or remain and consider working for some form of compensation. They could make basic personal decisions such as eating, drinking and clothing.
They could travel, and many did, to other states where their stories of the great liberation spread the joy from that day in Galveston. Over the years, their freedom brought new challenges and they made Juneteenth into an annual celebration of their historic turn in life. Traditions developed around it, including social activities, speakers, religious services, food and dress. The Great Depression and the world wars distracted from the celebrations, but remembrance and observance reignited with the fight for racial equality in the 1950s and ’60s.
In 1980, Texas became the first state to celebrate Juneteenth as an official state holiday. By 2000, only three other states had recognized it as either a ceremonial observance or official state holiday. Since then, all but three have.
The New Jersey Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill at the end of July making Juneteenth an official state holiday. It would become the 14th paid holiday each year for state government employees and elected officials, more than any other state and double the typical six or so for other workers in New Jersey.
The worst thing about New Jersey’s Juneteenth holiday bill, though, is that it would move the celebration from June 19 to a Friday — the third in June — ensuring state workers get yet another three-day weekend out of it. This will result in some Junetwenties celebrations, as the holiday falls not in the month’s teens but on the 20th or 21st.
We’re not going to suggest that Gov. Phil Murphy do the politically impossible and conditionally veto the bill until the Legislature restores Juneteenth to Juneteenth.
It will be up to Blacks to maintain this historic day’s verve and meaning for them, which is appropriate since they and their ancestors created and developed this important part of American culture and civilization.