Today is Juneteenth. If you don’t know what that is, consider it regrettable. This day honors an American event whose significance can rightfully be ranked in some ways as second only to the nation’s founding.
Indeed, the events are linked. A country that was created with slavery embedded in its laws and culture took its first official step toward redemption through the emancipation of an entire race of people held in chains. That’s what Juneteenth recognizes: the end of slavery and the salvation of the country.
More specifically, it approximates that date in 1865 that slaves in Texas learned they had been freed, and serves – or should serve – as a useful date to solemnize the liberation of millions of American men, women and children and the coinciding moment that the country reached for its better self.
In truth, the freeing of America’s slaves was a long process that several dates could appropriately recognize. One was Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Sept. 22, 1862. It was a political document that changed the nature of the Civil War into one of liberation, thus dissuading European powers from any thought of intervening on behalf of the cotton-producing South.
The executive order declared “forever free” only those slaves in states that were in rebellion. In practice it freed those slaves only when they escaped the control of the Confederate government – by running away or taking advantage of the advances of Union troops. Still, it was a formal and significant step. It took effect Jan. 1, 1863 – another fitting date to acknowledge the moment when the country began to take seriously its founding declaration that all men are created equal.
Even more substantive are the dates on which Congress passed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery (Jan. 31, 1865), the date on which the amendment was ratified by the states (Dec. 6, 1865) and the date on which Secretary of State William H. Seward formally declared it to have been adopted (Dec. 18, 1865).
Yet, Juneteenth is the event that has grown in American consciousness, spreading far beyond its Texas roots to the shores of Lake Erie and beyond. The change it signifies is momentous and should be more seriously observed in a country that still struggles with the aftereffects of slavery, often and appropriately described as America’s original sin.
It is only since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., that the country has formally taken time to acknowledge its dark history of racial prejudice. That holiday celebrates the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest historical figures, a man who devoted his adult life to civil rights and who gave his life in the course of that fight.
But there is need for deeper reflection and greater understanding than that January holiday can provide on its own. Juneteenth offers an opportunity. It celebrates precisely what Lincoln declared the war to be about in November 1863 as he dedicated a burial ground in Gettysburg, Pa. – that is, a new birth of freedom.
It is, in its own way, as significant as the Fourth of July. It saved us all.