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The Civic Promise of Juneteenth

Annual Juneteenth commemorations in Newark New Jersey

While Martin Luther King, Jr.’s January birthday has been a national holiday for nearly four decades, the four-year-old Juneteenth federal holiday already holds greater promise for civic education.

Precisely because a more racially contentious dynamic has unfolded around Juneteenth, this relatively recent celebration has opened the door to a focused telling of Black history. By contrast the relatively lukewarm reception to Martin Luther King Jr. Day has made education about difficult stories from our nation’s past less likely.  Juneteenth, on the other hand, holds more promise for honest encounters with a past often obscured by the politics of the present.

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Unlike the 2021 unanimous Senate vote and 415-14 House tally in favor of the Juneteenth holiday, the 1983 voting process for the King holiday was lengthy and conflictual. Having failed passage in both 1968 and 1979, the bill finally became law in 1983 but only after a Senate filibuster had been defeated and the House two-thirds majority mustered. At the state level, New Hampshire, the last state to establish a holiday to honor King by name, did not do so until 2000

Pundits at the time conjectured that such a contentious legislative process would foster ongoing dissension. Contrary to this prediction, however, the celebration of the King holiday soon lost its political edge. Only a year after the first celebration of the holiday, noted civil rights historian and author Vincent Harding observed in the September 1987 edition of the Journal of American History that the country had developed “a massive case of national amnesia” by stripping King of his prophetic and revolutionary messages. As a result, the holiday rarely stirred new controversies.

By contrast, the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021 offered a rare moment of bi-partisan support for racially conscious legislation. But the subsequent record of Juneteenth celebrations has been far more mixed. To be certain, this new holiday has popularized the Juneteenth history. The delay in announcing an end to slavery to the quarter million enslaved people in Texas is now much more widely known. Where once the account of the army’s arrival in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, rarely circulated outside African-American circles, the narrative is now told on an annual basis in thousands of celebrations across the country

At the same time, tensions around Juneteenth celebrations have increased in the wake of the initial bi-partisan consensus. Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills placing limits on the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT), often with chilling effect on all public discussions of race-specific history. As of 2023, 28 states have enacted restrictions and bans on CRT and related topics through legislative mandate, executive order, or other means. These legislative developments have, in turn, politicized Juneteenth as public celebrations of the day become a rare occasion for instruction in Black history.

Amid these racial tensions, the historically specific nature of the holiday made a softening of the story less likely. The life of an individual—even one tragically cut short like MLK Jr.’s—offers many angles for re-interpretation. The story of the failure to inform an enslaved people of their freedom has proven far more difficult to recast.

Read More: The Origins of Juneteenth and Why ‘Black Independence Day’ Falls on June 19th

Historians have long argued that the practice of democracy requires not only a civically educated populace but a body politic knowledgeable about its successes and failures. If the way forward for U.S. democracy involves such literacy, Juneteenth celebrations—more so than the now blunted King holiday—appear to be an incubator for what that racially conscious literacy might entail. 

In the small Mountain West city of Missoula, Montana where I live, for instance, the Montana Black Collective Missoula organizes an annual Juneteenth celebration at which leaders from the city and county join community residents to learn not only about the events of Juneteenth in Texas but the history of African Americans in their city and state. Past celebrations have included talks about the famed sojourns of the 25th-infantry bicycle corps, the history of Ku Klux Klan’s visit to a local African Methodist Episcopal Church in Missoula, and the legacies of notable Black Montanans—women, men, and children. The platform for educating the public about Montana’s Black History has broadened significantly due to the educational and celebratory activities provided by the Juneteenth holiday.

Whenever such local celebrations take place, they model the possibilities that emerge from robust telling of our nation’s often fraught, frequently horrific, and yet hope-filled history. That story offers an invitation to strengthen the body politic and to honor the forebears who, like those who marched into the full awareness of their freedom in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, took risks and helped bring about a fuller realization of what democracy could mean and might one day become. The King holiday can and should continue to be celebrated as a point of national unity around a fallen hero, of course. But the ongoing celebration of Juneteenth holds even greater promise for robust civic education precisely because it acknowledges a point of such historic tension.

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