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From Juneteenth To The Fourth Of July: America’s Struggle To Live Up To Its Freedom Promise

The unthinkable is becoming reality. But there’s lots more work that needs to be done.

by Janai Nelson, NAACP Legal Defense Fund | Blavity: News | July 1, 2021

Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.

The recent legislation establishing June 19, 1965, otherwise known as “Juneteenth” or “Jubilee Day,” as a federal holiday was, without question, a historic milestone worthy of appreciation. But as we celebrate this national marker long overdue, we should be reminded of the inherent hypocrisy that holidays of emancipation hold in this country.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of the enslavement of Black people in the United States, 156 years after the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas — the last jurisdiction in which enslaved persons received notification of emancipation. This important recognition comes a full 402 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived on our nation’s shores.

The significance of the formal recognition of this hallowed day by our federal government can be lost on no one. At a moment when states across the country are banning Critical Race Theory and *The 1619 Project from public school curricula, and prohibiting diversity, equity and inclusion training on the idea that it makes people uncomfortable because of their race, this holiday is an assertion of Black visibility and racial truth-telling. It rebukes the revisionist history that extremists wish to seed as national narrative and it acknowledges the resilience of our ancestors.

The United States Senate, which has been intractable and polarized on so many consequential bills to protect our democracy, passed the bill swiftly and with no debate, followed by a House vote where it was approved overwhelmingly by a vote of 415 to 14. In signing the legislation, President Biden stated that it was among the “greatest honors” he will have as president.

In these moments, we are reminded once again that what was once unthinkable can be possible. However, in the words of Ms. Opal Lee, the “grandmother of Juneteenth” who fought to make Juneteenth a holiday and lived to see it happen, “There’s lots more work that needs to be done.”

While important, establishing Juneteenth as a holiday is not a substitute for the muscular legislation needed to ensure that Black Americans can be self-determined through the power of the vote and the removal of systemic barriers to equality and justice. Indeed, the work before us is to bring our vision of what this nation can be when the full promise of equality for all is a reality — from public safety to safeguarding our democracy and every system in between. It is a vision of a nation that has never existed for Black Americans.

Who could have imagined a summer in which legions of people across all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico would mount peaceful protests against police violence after the murder of George Floyd? Polls show that anywhere from 15 to 26 million Americans took to the streets and the impact of their action yielded tangible results. Following the protests, New York State legislators repealed 50-a, a law that had prevented the public disclosure of police officer misconduct records. This permitted New York City to release the complaint histories of over 83,000 active and former officers. Similarly, Maryland became the first state to repeal its Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which had long created barriers to accountability by establishing a special set of rights for officers that limited the number of complaints that resulted in discipline. New Mexico, Colorado, Connecticut and New York City all passed bills to limit qualified immunity, the judge-made doctrine that has allowed law enforcement officers to engage in unlawful conduct with no accountability.

The unthinkable is becoming reality. But there’s lots more work that needs to be done.

Our democracy is in crisis. Black voters face a rash of new laws in over a dozen states — including Georgia, where election officials aim to cancel 102,000 voter registrations, and in Florida where election supervisors are confused and frustrated by many of the unclear provisions. These and the nearly 400 bills that would make voting more difficult have been introduced since the 2020 elections threatened to undermine Black voting power for generations. The For the People Act (S. 1) is a federal antidote to this backlash that was provoked by the powerful Black voter turnout in 2020 and again in the Georgia runoff in 2021. But there are aggressive attempts to water it down and to stall its companion legislation, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4), that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and partner organizations are actively fighting. There’s also inadequate movement on legislation that would make Washington, D.C. a state so that D.C. residents, a majority of whom are people of color that pay taxes and serve in our military, can have their rightful voice in our democracy.

And, state legislators are not only aggressively targeting our right to vote, they are also trying to silence our speech. Lawmakers in more than 30 states have introduced nearly 100 anti-protest bills in direct response to the success of last summer’s peaceful protests. In Florida, where LDF has filed suit against its new anti-protest law, the legislation criminalizes peaceful protest, including denying bail to anyone arrested until their court hearing — thereby guaranteeing they will spend at least one night in jail. Instead of protecting our constitutional rights, the law protects Confederate monuments and allows vigilantes and counter-protesters to escape civil liability if they injure or kill protesters with their cars.

These collective actions — the laws against voting, free speech, and teaching the truth of our nation’s history and our collective lived experiences — are devastating and coordinated attacks on the power of Black communities. They are attempts to buttress the structures of white supremacy through indoctrination, anti-democratic elections and eliminating voices of opposition, because the sweeping change in racial demographics and the shift in power structures demanded in this moment that were once unthinkable are now tenable. This is the reality for which we must continue to fight.

It is also why Frederick Douglass’ words lambasting another holiday of emancipation, the Fourth of July, ring true today. In his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” he asked, “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”

So long as Black people continue to face state-sponsored disenfranchisement and an unchecked climate of white supremacist violence, the answer is a resounding no. And, if we take anything from the lessons of those who came before us and in whose memory we celebrate Juneteenth, we know that America’s work to make that holiday — as well as Independence Day — live up to its symbol of freedom is not yet done. We also know that it is imperative that we seize the full momentum of this moment — when everything is on the line — to transfer more from the list of the unthinkable to the ledger of what is now possible. Only then can we truly and fully celebrate the liberty and freedom of the national imagination.


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