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Littwin: It was long past due for Juneteenth to become a national holiday, but why did it happen now?

The bill creating the holiday passed with near unanimity because of the momentum following George Floyd’s killing, but also because it gives cover to those seeking laws to suppress minority voting or to ban teaching anything controversial about race.

It seems as if the idea for the Juneteenth federal holiday sprang up from nowhere. It didn’t, of course. Many of those in the Black community have celebrated it for generations. We’ve celebrated it in Denver for years. Activists like 94-year-old Opal Lee , who was among those chosen to attend Joe Biden’s signing ceremony, have been pushing it for decades. 

Local media often do feel-good stories on the date, which celebrates the June day in 1865 in which Union Maj. General Gordon Granger and his troops landed in Galveston, Tex., and told the slaves that under the Emancipation Proclamation, they were now set free.

Mike Littwin

It should be noted that the proclamation, which freed slaves only in the seceding states, had been ordered in 1863, two years before Granger arrived. Most Texas slave owners simply ignored the proclamation and many slaves in the state had never heard about it.

It should also be noted that Lee had surrendered to Grant in April of 1865, two months before Granger delivered that news to Texans. News moved slowly back then. So did progress, even as it does now. 

A national recognition of the end of slavery — often called America’s original sin — is long overdue. There are other competing dates, such as the passage of the 13th Amendment, which officially ended slavery. Still, Juneteenth will do. Spreading from Texas, where it is a state holiday, it has holiday status — usually commemorative or ceremonial — in most states around the country. Denver celebrates it on a Saturday, not a workday, closest to the June 19th date.

But the bill’s near-unanimous passage — 14 House crazies did oppose it, although Lauren Boebert, who usually aligns with the crazies, voted for it — tells us something about why it passed and why it’s needed and why the holiday itself must be a starting point and not an ending one.

It passed nearly unanimously because it’s easy. Everyone opposes slavery. It passed because consciousness had been raised in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing at the hands of police and the worldwide demonstrations that followed. And you might remember how long it took for Martin Luther King Day to become a national holiday.

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But the Juneteenth holiday also passed nearly unanimously because it gives cover to those who refuse to recognize that racism didn’t end with the Civil War or with Juneteenth or with the civil rights laws or in the America we know today.

It passed nearly unanimously even as states grapple with— or, pointedly, don’t grapple with— systemic racism in policing, underfunded and still-too-segregated public schools, wealth inequality, health inequality, the dangers, we see too often, of driving while Black, of walking while Black, of breathing while Black.

It passed nearly unanimously even as Republican-led states are advancing laws meant to suppress the vote, particularly of minorities, while federal laws to address this issue are stalled in the U.S. Senate.

This holiday passed nearly unanimously even as an until-recently-obscure academic notion called critical race theory has become the latest bogeyman from the right, which wants Americans to believe that schoolchildren are being taught that white kids are inherently racist. They’re not, of course. If someone has a kid who is being taught that he or she is racist, please let me know. But this is how Donald Trump and many of his followers see it: “To succeed with their extreme agenda, radicals know they must abolish our attachment to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and most of all, Americans’ very identity as a free, proud, and self-governing people.”

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Critical race theory is many things — some more radical than others, and taught differently by nearly every professor who teaches it — but it is basically the notion that systemic racism is real, that we must understand that point in considering policies new and old, and that the problem must be addressed and rooted out.

In response, as many as 21 states have now passed or are considering passing laws limiting how history can be taught, with some going as far as banning the teaching of critical race theory — as Texas has, without ever quite defining it — and mandating that teachers, in discussing modern racist controversies, discuss both sides of the issue, as if to give credence to Donald Trump’s fine-people-on-both-sides verdict of the Charlottesville white supremacy demonstrations. I know that the idea that the Texas war of independence from Mexico was driven, in large part, by the expansion of slavery remains very much a controversial issue there. In a new book called Forget the Alamo, the authors write that the Texas origin story, as taught in schools, is mostly wrong. The truth is that Texas fought two wars to protect slavery.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

With the 100-year commemoration of the murderous race riot that destroyed an affluent Black Tulsa community and killed hundreds in 1921, many of us learned that no one had ever told us about it. What you should know is that there are many such stories like the one in Tulsa that we’ve never been told about.

I went to school as a Northerer moved to the Jim Crow South, where the Civil War was called the War Between the States and where we were taught that states’ rights and not slavery was the principal cause of the war. We were taught that Reconstruction was the product of Northern “carpetbaggers” who exploited uneducated freed Blacks. My segregated elementary school was named for a Confederate general. My segregated junior high school was named for Jefferson Davis. 

Decades later, I would learn that one of the key moments in the Civil War took place just a few miles from where I lived. Soon after Virginia seceded, three slaves swam from Hampton to nearby Fort Monroe, the granite fortress at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay that was under union control. The slaves were seeking asylum in the time of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, which said escaped slaves that reach the free North must be returned to their owners, and with the cooperation of free-state officials. 

As a slave owner demanded the slaves’ return from Fort Monroe, Gen. Benjamin Butler, the fort’s commander and a self-taught lawyer, determined that since Virginia had seceded, the law no longer applied there and that the slaves should not be returned. It took a while for Abraham Lincoln to sign on to Butler’s ruling, but eventually he did. It was a game-changing moment. And when John Magruder, the Confederate general for whom my elementary school was named, read a story that Hampton was to become a refuge for escaped slaves, he burned the city down.

I wonder if that story is taught today. Should kids be taught that racism is bad? Of course. Should kids, when they’re old enough to understand, be taught that racism isn’t always obvious and is in many ways ingrained? Obviously. It’s just as obvious that the contradictions in our history — that, in the most egregious example, the man who wrote the most famous words in our founding, that all men are created equal, himself owned slaves — are critical to understand. 

Women weren’t seen as equal, either, of course. And in the beginning, only white men who owned property could vote. It’s complicated. And it’s messy. Of course, it is. I mean, do you know when the federal anti-lynching law was finally passed? (Hint: more than a century too late.) 

If there’s anything that the Juneteenth holiday must teach it’s that after all these years, we must not forget, to cite MLK, that though the arc of the moral universe is long and may, in the end, bend toward justice, it hasn’t gotten there yet.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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