In just about any other year, Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the day in 1865 that all enslaved black people learned they had been freed from bondage, would be marked by African American families across the nation with a cookout, a parade, a community festival, a soulful rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
But in 2020, as the coronavirus ravishes black America disproportionately, as economic uncertainty wrought by the pandemic strains black pocketbooks, and as police brutality continues to devastate black families, Juneteenth is a day of protest.
For many white Americans, recent protests over police brutality have driven their awareness of Juneteenth’s significance.
“This is one of the first times since the ’60s, where the global demand, the intergenerational demand, the multiracial demand is for systemic change,” said Cornell University professor Noliwe Rooks, a segregation expert. “There is some understanding and acknowledgment at this point that there’s something in the DNA of the country that has to be undone.”
Friday’s celebrations will be marked from coast to coast with marches and demonstrations of civil disobedience, along with expressions of black joy in spite of an especially traumatic time for the nation. And like the nationwide protests that followed the police-involved deaths of black men and women in Minnesota, Kentucky and Georgia, Juneteenth celebrations are likely to be remarkably more multiracial.
“I think this year is going to be exciting to make white people celebrate with us that we’re free,” said 35-year-old Army veteran David J. Hamilton III, who has organized a Juneteenth march and protest through a predominantly black, Hispanic and immigrant neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Hamilton, who is black, said this year is his first treating “Juneteenth with the same fanfare as the Fourth of July or Memorial Day.”
In Tulsa, a day ahead of a planned presidential campaign rally Saturday for Donald Trump, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of a black man killed by a city police officer in 2016, plan keynote addresses about the consequences of racial prejudice. Their commemoration will take place in the Greenwood district, at the site known as Black Wall Street, where dozens of blocks of black-owned businesses were destroyed by a white mob in deadly race riots nearly a century ago.
In Washington, D.C., and around the country, activists affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement will host in-person and virtual events to celebrate the history of the black liberation struggle and amplify their calls for defunding police in the wake of high-profile police killings of African Americans.
As of Thursday, organizers with the Movement for Black Lives said they had registered more than 275 Juneteenth weekend events across 45 states, through its website.
Rashawn Ray, a David Rubenstein Fellow at the nonprofit public policy Brookings Institution, said many now view Juneteenth as an opportunity for education and to push to dismantle structural racism.
“There’s going to be a lot of people who are also going to double down on the push for reparations,” Ray said. “There’s no reason why black people have been the only group in the United States to be systematically discriminated against, legally, by the federal government and not receive reparations.”
Juneteenth marks the day on June 19, 1865, that Union soldiers told enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended and they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863 but it was not enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
The day is recognized in 47 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states without an official recognition. And it is not yet a federal holiday. It took roughly 18 years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. before his birthday was observed as a federal holiday.
Still, more workers than perhaps ever in history will have the day off on Friday: Nike, the NFL, Twitter and its mobile payments services company Square, along with a handful of media outlets, have announced plans to observe Juneteenth as a company holiday. On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees.
The abolition of slavery in the U.S. was followed by the birth of Jim Crow segregation, relegating many black Americans to poor, redlined neighborhoods with under-resourced schools. After the passage of landmark civil rights protections in the 1960s, decades of mass incarceration policy and employment discrimination eroded opportunities and economic stability for black people and families. All along, police brutality has been a fixture of the black American experience. And now, COVID-19 is killing black people at more than three times the rate that it kills white people.
Much of the systemic racism and atrocities visited on black Americans have gone unanswered. This week, the Equal Justice Initiative, which in 2015 cataloged thousands of racial terror lynchings of black people by white mobs, added nearly 2,000 Reconstruction-era lynchings confirmed between 1865 and 1876, bringing the total number of documented lynchings to nearly 6,500.
“Our continued silence about the history of racial injustice has fueled many of the current problems surrounding police violence, mass incarceration, racial inequality and the disparate impact of COVID-19,” said Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
“We need a new era of truth and justice in America,” he said in a statement. “We must acknowledge our long history of racial oppression and then repair the damage this history has created — including the presumption of dangerousness that gets assigned to black people by police and others.”
Juneteenth also comes at a time when the nation is at a political crossroads, and Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown said it is shaping up to be a politically defining moment ahead of the November election.
“The devaluing of black lives is built into this American system to the point that the ideas around democracy don’t apply to us the same way that they apply to white folks,” Brown said, adding black voters are demanding change.
“So Juneteenth is a celebratory event but we’re not celebrating the country. We’re celebrating our own freedom and our own ability to be liberated and the resiliency of black people.”