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There Is Only One Headline This Week: Juneteenth

FANS welcomes Juneteenth to the roster of federally recognized holidays. In some respects, 48 states and DC already had it on their calendars. For reasons that are uncertain, South Dakota was the lone holdout and their legislature is currently working on it. From various postings and even Pres. Biden’s speech, you may have heard the official version of the holiday’s history. It is, sadly, mostly wrong.

Here is the official version. On 19 June 1865, near Galveston, TX, Union Gen. Gordon Granger, following General Order No. 3, read aloud the Emancipation Proclamation to slaves and thus informed them that they were free. And that’s it.

The real audience was the enslavers, not the slaves. Pretending slaves were ignorant of the events of the larger world is a racist myth little different from John C. Calhoun’s belief that slavery itself improved Blacks’ condition by introducing them to “civilization.”

Both groups, slaves and enslavers, had long known about and discussed both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. But the enslavers continued to force Black people to work, murdering more than a few of them in front of friends and family to emphasize the point. What Gen. Granger and others like him did was to say no to all of that in unambiguous terms via the barrel of a gun.

A little more than a decade later, however, it ended. The South had resisted as strongly as possible the notions both of losing and of emancipation. Maintaining the Union Army in the South was expensive and the soldiers, like all soldiers, wanted to go home. Further, most of the Radical Republicans were either out of office or dead by 1876. Following a hotly contested election, a purely partisan political arrangement was reached to end Reconstruction and send the troops home.

Almost immediately after the troops’ departure, Southern states shifted gears and went from a low-key assault on Black lives and into high gear with a long Terror that formally and legally lasted generations. Since then, after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, among much other legislation and various Supreme Court cases, the Terror continues as a matter of systemic racism. Police are more likely to kill Black people than whites by a factor of three, Black people are denied home and business loans, and schools continue to be highly segregated by race. Earlier this year in Dallas, when local authorities tried to address the racial disparities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution, the state ordered them to stop.

Celebrate Juneteenth. There are documented observances every year from 1866 onward, spreading across the South and then to the North and West with the Great Migration. Do not take this little note as a reason to stop any of that because honoring life and freedom is important. Instead, after the BBQ and the fellowship, take it as a call to continue the work.

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