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With action in the Maine Legislature and Congress, Juneteenth was declared a state and federal holiday last year. We applaud the effort to bring more recognition to the diverse history of the United States, including events too long overlooked by our “official” history. However, it is important to remember that setting aside a holiday is no substitute for substantive action to reduce widespread racial disparities that continue to harm Black Americans.
Juneteenth is a 157-year-old holiday, yet few Americans are familiar with the celebration that loosely marks the end of slavery in the United States.
The holiday — which officially falls on Sunday this year, but is being marked by the government on Monday — gets its name from June 19, 1865, the day the Union army arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that all African-American slaves in the state were free in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued nearly three years earlier. Texas was the last state in the Confederacy to receive word that the Civil War was over and that slavery had been abolished.
The day has long been celebrated in Texas, but has been little known elsewhere until recently. Maine lawmakers passed a bill in 2011 to establish the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth Independence Day. Last year, they passed a bill to make Juneteenth an official state holiday beginning this year.
Congress also passed legislation last year making Juneteenth a federal holiday. It is the first new federal holiday since 1983 when Congress established Martin Luther King Day to honor the civil rights leader.
“There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And it seems to me that this is the most propitious time for us to recognize our history and learn from it,” Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas and a sponsor of the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, said in remarks last June before President Joe Biden signed the bill.
“But I believe that there is no better time than the present, particularly given the strife we’ve seen, the level of distrust for example, between law enforcement and the communities they serve, than to acknowledge our nation’s history and learn from it,” Cornyn added a year ago.
We agree. Lawmakers and others can show they’re learning from our nation’s history by taking bolder action to rectify long-standing racial disparities and injustices.
If lawmakers want to show they understand our history — and current economic realities — they should vote to increase the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. Women, particularly Black and Hispanic women, are far more likely to earn less than $15 an hour — a common wage target for bills that seek to increase the minimum wage — than are white men, the Washington Post found in a recent analysis.
This is one of many reasons that the average net worth of Black families is only one-tenth that of white families (both are too low, especially at a time when American billionaires have been seeing their wealth grow at record pace).
Supporting voting rights legislation would also be more meaningful than a new holiday. Restrictions, such as requiring IDs to vote, limiting polling places and restricting absentee voting, are more likely to reduce voter turnout among communities of color. That’s why it is important for Congress to reestablish minimum requirements aimed at protecting the voting rights of these communities.
Black men are disproportionately stopped by police when driving and, Black Americans, particularly young men, are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white Americans. Although Black Americans account for 13 percent of the country’s population, they account for more than a quarter of those killed by police. Hispanic Americans are also disproportionately killed by police. Acknowledging these diparaties is a crucial part of police reform efforts.
These are just a few of the many real changes that lawmakers can make to further equity and reduce discrimination. And while the country is rightfully taking this moment to recognize and learn from our history, state and local officials shouldn’t be preventing teachers from actually teaching about the inequality and discrimination that is part of our history.
Honoring Juneteenth is a tiny step in more fully recognizing a long untold part of American history. It should lead to much bigger steps toward justice and equality.