Black leaders reflect on Juneteenth nearly 160 years after Galveston enslaved were freed

Black leaders around the nation are reflecting on the legacy of Juneteenth and the need for the holiday nearly 160 years after the last of enslaved Americans were emancipated.

“Juneteenth is a time to come together to celebrate freedom, liberty and the resilience that has defined the Black American story from our arrival on these shores in 1619,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday in a statement.

Although President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, it took until June 19, 1865, for news of the emancipation to reach Galveston, Texas. When Union soldiers arrived to enforce the order, the day became known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day and, most commonly, Juneteenth.

“After this date of emancipation, Black Americans obtained the right to vote, gained equal protection under the law and held elected office at the local, state and federal level,” Jeffries said. “Unfortunately, that joy was short-lived and followed by a vicious backlash that ushered in nearly a century of Jim Crow segregation.”

The city of Galveston has celebrated Juneteenth since 1866, but the push to make the day a federal holiday dates back more than 100 years. Activists like Opal Lee, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” and Texas state Rep. Albert Ely Edwards, known as “Mr. Juneteenth,” pushed for the federal government to recognize the holiday.

In June 2021, following a summer of racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, President Biden officially deemed Juneteenth a federal holiday. It was the first federal holiday to be named since the establishment of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1983.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told The Hill that co-sponsoring the legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was something he was “really proud” to do.

“It was a day that all Americans should recognize they have jubilation, a day of freedom, one of our most sacrosanct values, and even more, so it’s a day to really mark the end of a long, long struggle in America and, frankly, something that there was tremendous sacrifice and death and work for,” said Booker. “So it’s time to remember the hard road of which we walked, the victories which we’ve achieved, but also to rededicate ourselves to the work still to do.”

Many Black leaders said they are using Wednesday to look toward where progress must still be made, particularly in the face of the upcoming presidential election.

“I think that we need to take this as an opportunity to not only recognize the fact that allegedly Black people were free in this country, but recognize the struggles that still exist,” said Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas).

“Right now, we have people that are trying to roll back the progress that was made by so many people willing to give their last day, give their lives,” she continued. “And the one thing that we don’t want to do is go back to glorifying something such as slavery, which is what they tried to do in Texas, which is what they tried to do in Florida and others. Instead, we have to make sure that we are very clear about the savagery in slavery.”

Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee, went as far as to call out former President Trump in his statement Wednesday.

“As we celebrate Juneteenth and reflect on the resilience of Black Americans, we must recognize that the struggle for Black liberation is not confined to any particular moment but rather an ongoing, long-term movement for civil rights. We must be the civil rights leaders of our generation and continue the journey toward freedom and equality that started long before us,” said Harrison.

It was Biden, said Harrison, who appointed more Black judges to the federal bench than any previous president in a single term, including Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the Court.

“As for Donald Trump, he referred to white supremacists as ‘my people’ and attacks DEI efforts across the country,” said Harrison. “His policies aren’t for the Black community, and contrary to what he has said, he isn’t looking out for us.”

Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus is using the entire week of Juneteenth as a week of action in the hopes of mobilizing Black voters ahead of November.

“We believe that it’s not only a time to honor the holiday of Juneteenth, but what it means and what it signifies and the fact that every generation has to continue to fight to protect our freedom,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill’s The Switch Up.

Black leaders, including the CBC, have been sounding the alarm on what appear to be rollbacks of civil rights for Black Americans, pointing to a recent ruling by the U.S. federal court of appeals to block the Fearless Fund, a Black-owned venture capitalist firm, from awarding grants exclusively to Black women entrepreneurs; restrictions on African American studies programs; and limitations to diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

“Throughout our journey in America we have always found a way to make progress in the face of opposition,” said Jeffries. “House Democrats will continue the righteous fight to make America the best version of herself and secure liberty, equality and justice for every American, without delay.”

Tiah Shepherd contributed.

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