Opal Lee, a self-described “little old lady in tennis shoes” was 89 when she embarked on a mission to make Juneteenth, the day slavery in the U.S. truly ended, a federal holiday. To amplify her message, she organized a rally in Ft. Worth, Texas, her hometown, put those tennis shoes on and began walking. It was 1,400 miles to Washington, DC, but she was determined to deliver a petition with 1.5 million signatures requesting Juneteenth be made a legal holiday, the same as Flag Day and Thanksgiving. Despite her charm (and stamina) her attempt fell flat—until this month, when a bipartisan bill passed, making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
The fact that Lee’s walk began in Texas has relevance. Although Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation became effective on Jan. 1, 1863, Texans defied it, refusing to tell slaves they’d been freed. Some slaveowners argued they didn’t need to comply because they didn’t consider Texas part of the United States, and therefore were under no obligation to follow its laws. When roughly 10,000 Union troops landed in Galveston on June 19, 1865, that was the end of that argument. Though the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas didn’t know they’d been free for the 2+ years before the soldiers landed, they knew it then. The fact that the troops were a black regiment, composed of free and formerly enslaved black men, gave the optics a glorious twist.
Since that day, Juneteenth has been celebrated by black Americans across the country, often with barbecues, fireworks, cultural events and pageants. The Solidarity Day rally in Washington DC on June 19, 1968 brought modest mainstream awareness to a day most white people had never heard of, and it was about that time that the idea for using a federal holiday to mark the date started to slowly take shape.
That effort gained momentum in 1994, when a group of New Orleans ministers started The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. A network of organizers was set up in each state, and a deeply symbolic Juneteenth Flag was designed. Its red stripe represents blood shed by the slaves who helped create the country, and the white star over a blue horizon is a guide towards freedom.
Interestingly, as the federal holiday idea languished, state governments began acting. Texas may have been the last Confederate state to effectively end slavery, but it was the first to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. By 2020, 47 states officially recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or a day of observance. Mentions of the day started appearing in the mainstream when popular TV shows like “Blackish” devoted an episode to it. Google put Juneteenth on its calendar, and the news media started covering the celebrations. Many major cities, including Detroit, Denver, New York and Miami, scheduled Juneteenth marches and/or festivals; in Dallas, Juneteenth festivities for this year not only promote black achievement but have a wellness angle, with Walmart on hand with Pfizer vaccines. Public television stations scheduled relevant programming throughout the day. ABC scored a prime-time interview with Barack Obama. Spotify will exclusively feature black artists on June 19th. The Tribeca Film Festival’s Juneteenth Programming will include short films, podcasts, panels, music and other special events and, for the first time, will present The Harry Belafonte Voices for Social Justice Award. Stacey Abrams, the George is the inaugural recipient. Abrams is House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly and State Representative for the 89th House District.
All these plans were made long before the vote, paralleling the intensifying attention by the corporate world on issues of diversity and inclusion regarding African Americans and their experiences in the U.S. Ford created a 30-second TV spot, https://www.ispot.tv/ad/OMNd/ford-juneteenth-t1. Major corporations, among them Nike, Twitter, BestBuy, and Allstate, made Juneteenth a paid day off.
It’s striking how many leaders linked Juneteenth with the need to understand systemic racism. Postmates CEO, Bastian Lehmann, declared Juneteenth an official company holiday not just in response to the moment “but to allow all of us time to reflect on the Black American experience from 1619 to today and the actions required to move forward together.” Altria CEO, Billy Gifford, told staffers, “These are difficult times, and we must find ways to embrace our differences, address underlying systemic issues and move forward as a country.” MasterCard called Juneteenth a Day of Solidarity: “While the date itself acknowledges a milestone in U.S. history, the sad fact is there’s work to do everywhere to combat racism and discrimination.”
A watershed decision
All of what the CEOs said track well, but is it more than just some good public relations, easily dismissed as a ploy to look like companies are doing the right thing? Actually, it seems to be an important step at a time when the country is facing a national reckoning on racism and all the issues that flow from it: how history is taught, the role of whites in the ugly chapter of slavery, how to handle reparations, the insidiousness of racial profiling, and the vilification of Black Lives Matter.
While the corporate response is a good step, CEO proclamations about healing and awareness ring hollow if their diversity practices don’t match the rhetoric. It’s one thing to talk about systemic racism, and it’s another to hire, pay and promote black employees at the same rate as whites. A day off and a few careful internal communications are empty measures unless those communications are followed with policies and actions to ensure long-term change that supports equality and equity.
Though there is clearly more work to do and establishing the Juneteenth holiday does not address many serious issues such as police brutality, mass incarceration, and other racial inequities, it was beautifully fitting that at the signing ceremony for the bill at the Oval Office, Opal Lee, now 94, had a front row seat. In a bit of theater, President Biden acknowledged her outsized role as an advocate and organizer, and when he went to give her the pen that he used to sign the bill, he ended up kneeling before her and taking her hand. "I've got so many different feelings all gurgling up here. I don't know what to call them all," she told CNN affiliate KTVT. "I've got children, grandchildren, great-grands and even some great-great-grands and I'm wanting them to have a much better world than the world I came up in," she said.
An official Juneteenth holiday is a start.