The Real History of Juneteenth and the Reason It’s a Federal Holiday
Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN / Unsplash

The Real History of Juneteenth and the Reason It’s a Federal Holiday

Freedom Day has nothing to do with freedom

The premise for the Juneteenth holiday is to celebrate the date enslaved people in Texas found out they were free. On June 19, 1865, seventy-one days after the Civil War ended, Major General Gordon Granger rolled into Galveston, TX, with his army and announced that slavery was over. His announcement wasn’t based on the South losing the war but the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed Texas enslaved people, provided they made their way to a free state or territory. Granger was really telling the slaves that Abraham Lincoln had freed them two and a half years earlier.

Juneteenth is being promoted as “Freedom Day.” But there’s a hitch: nobody was freed on Freedom Day; enslaved people were literally told to go back to their plantations and hope to extract wages from their former enslavers. Don’t come to the army bases or seek help from the government. Slaves were told to proceed quietly, the 1865 equivalent of “shut up and dribble.”

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free," informed the order issued by Major General Gordon Granger. "This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Related: White People Should Have to Work on Juneteenth

The more accurate description of Juneteenth 1865 was the day they were officially informed of an old proclamation, but to get back to work, and not call us, we’ll call you. The state of Texas went on to institute Black Codes, which, reinvented slavery. Here are three examples from the Texas Black Codes: Texas required free Black people to sign contracts that effectively reduced them to enslaved people once more. Those without contracts were arrested and then leased out to plantations.

Juneteenth became a federal holiday, and it was a long time in the making. Actually, becoming one came in an instant. Legislation to recognize Juneteenth was first introduced in 1997 by Barbara-Rose Collins (D-MI). A resolution was passed in the House and the Senate, and a piece of paper was issued. Satisfied, Congress did nothing else related to Juneteenth until 2013, when the Senate passed a new resolution and produced another piece of paper.

By 2016, 45 states recognized Juneteenth, and Opal Lee, the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” began walking from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to advocate for a federal holiday. Every year for decades, Lee led a symbolic 2.5-mile walk to represent the 2.5 years it took for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas. Opal Lee was 89 years old when she led the March to Washington. She truly believed Juneteenth would one day become a national holiday. Her question was, would it occur during her lifetime?

On May 25, 2020, a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, encountered police outside a Minneapolis corner store. He later died from his injuries, and his death became another statistic. On May 26, 2020, police issued a statement saying Floyd died after a “medical incident” and that he physically resisted and appeared to be in medical distress. Minutes afterward, a video shot by a bystander was posted online. It went viral, and portions were shown on television stations worldwide. The police immediately responded by saying the FBI would investigate the incident. On May 28, Mayor Jacob Frey called for criminal charges against Chauvin, the lead officer involved. Protests lead to unrest in Minneapolis, with some people looting and starting fires. Protests spread to other cities around the nation, even the world.

Typically, protests rise and fade, but this time, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. Protests occurred all over the world, and they did not subside quickly. Here are photographic samples from the months after the video’s release.

These protests occurred during a Presidential election cycle. President Donald Trump was up for reelection in November, as was one-third of the U.S. Senate and the entire House of Representatives. People had taken to the streets across the country, and by people, I mean mostly white people, which made these protests different from most others.

Even more significantly, they were demanding change: elimination of qualified immunity, providing more funding for mental health services and less for the militarization of police forces, and more civilian oversight of police forces. These were things most political leaders didn’t want to do; they feared it would upset their chances for reelection and change the dynamic of police protection that evolved from controlling immigrants and slave patrols. Leaders didn’t want to take action; they needed a distraction; they needed Juneteenth.

During his reelection campaign on September 25, 2020, President Donald Trump added making Juneteenth a national holiday to his “Platinum Plan for Black America.” Candidate Joe Biden attended Juneteenth events during his campaign. Joe Biden won the election and became President on January 20, 2021. There was a hitch before that on January 6, but it didn’t end the George Floyd protests; the country still demanded change.

When the protests began in 2020, those opposed to the changes demanded by the protesters had no immediate answer but soon began to change the narrative. They categorized the protests as “riots” and turned the focus onto Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

They portrayed the mostly peaceful protests as violent, refusing to acknowledge that most of the violence was conducted by the same people who attempted a government insurrection on January 6; the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, et al. The police themselves began a work slowdown, annoyed that they might one day be accountable for their actions.

Promises to meet protesters' demands were not being fulfilled. No action was taken on qualified immunity, and funding for police forces increased, often with less available for mental health. Something had to be done to appease the masses. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat barbeque.”

On June 15, 2021, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. If you know anything about the U.S. Senate, you know Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Joe Manchin, and Lindsey Graham didn’t give a damn about Juneteenth, but they went along. On June 16, 2021, the House of Representatives passed the bill without making any changes, passing it on a vote of (415–14). On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law, creating the federal holiday we have today.

I like a good barbeque as well as the next person, but the reason it was granted so suddenly wasn’t because all three branches of government had “what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity.” The Juneteenth federal holiday was a distraction; the rope-a-dope was a ritualistic okey-doke, much to do about nothing.

So, Juneteenth is now a federal holiday. Federal employees get the day off, and unlike Martin Luther King Day in several states, the date isn’t shared with Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis.

I’ve been invited to a Juneteenth picnic but won’t be going as I have a conflict. I don’t see Juneteenth as a reason to celebrate. It has nothing to do with freedom and was only granted as a distraction. Juneteenth has gone mainstream and even has Hallmark Cards, but I think I’ll pass.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.