Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Hank Sanders: Sketches# 1776 - Juneteenth will never be a national holiday

  They will never make Juneteenth a national holiday. These were the words of a young Black man. He stated this conclusion with such certainty and authority. We were in a meeting of the Dallas County Chapter of the Alabama New South Coalition. One person said that we needed to make Juneteenth a national holiday. That’s when the young man made his statement. He also said, in so many words, that we did not know what we were doing and needed to do things his way. I did not know anything of note he had done. Juneteenth will never be a national holiday.

  I did not engage the young man. I let it pass. It would not have done any good. In his mind, he knew more than I. In his mind, he knew more than all of us in the meeting put together. I could have told him that I had passed a resolution back in 2012 in the Alabama Legislature recognizing Juneteenth. But it would not have done any good. He knew more than I. He knew more than all of us put together. Juneteenth will never be a national holiday.

  Of course, Juneteenth has been a long time coming – 155 years to be exact. It started way back in 1865 on June 19. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army went to Galveston, Texas to tell enslaved Africans and the White enslavers that slavery was over and the enslaved human beings were free.

  Slavery was one of the most monumental institutions in the United States of America. Therefore, the ending of slavery was one of the most monumental events in the United States of America. It should have given birth to enduring celebrations. Instead, such celebrations could get one lynched. The end of slavery was not widely celebrated for at least three reasons: (1) Slavery ended piecemeal; (2) much of the majority population mourned its passing; and (3) it could engender the very lives of the formerly enslaved. Juneteenth will never be a national holiday.

  The ending of slavery commenced well before the Civil War. A number of northern states abolished slavery gradually over time. The first was Pennsylvania in 1780. The second was Massachusetts in 1783. By 1804, all the northern states had abolished slavery, but every southern state fiercely retained slaves. When the Civil War commenced, President Abraham Lincoln made the following announcement.: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” This from the man later dubbed as freeing the slaves.

  Even with the advent of the Civil War, abolishing slavery was piecemeal. In 1862, slavery was abolished in Washington, D.C., and enslavers were paid $300 for each person freed from slavery. Strictly as a war measure, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 to become effective January 1, 1863 for states that did not return to the Union. Technically the Emancipation Proclamation did not free anyone. It stated that slavery was still legal in those states that were not at war with the Union (border states), but slavery was illegal in those states or areas that were at war with the Union (Confederate states). Where the Union had authority, slavery was still legal. Where the Union did not have the power or authority, slavery was illegal. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865. However, many enslaved persons had already freed themselves by running away during and before the Civil War. Emancipation was piecemeal. Juneteenth will never be a national holiday.

  It was 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation became effective and 2½ months after the Civil War ended when Union General Gordon Granger issued General Order #3 on June 19, 1965. However, enslaved persons still were not legally free because the Emancipation Proclamation was a war measure, and the war was now over. It took the 13th Amendment, which was ratified on December 6, 1865 – six months after Juneteenth – to legally free all enslaved persons. 

  Juneteenth is a combination of the words June and nineteenth. That date is as good a time to celebrate the end of slavery as any other. And it has taken 155 years to come to fruition. Even then it took an unlikely series of events to come to this moment: election of Joe Biden as President; retention of Democratic control of the House of Representatives; achieving control of the U.S. Senate through the unlikely Georgia election victory; and Republicans’ diminishing the right to vote in state after state. It is a gesture, but symbolic gestures can be powerful. On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday, but states have to follow suit to be. Juneteenth is on its way to becoming a national holiday.

EPILOGUE – Celebrations are powerful. They remind us of our struggles involving things of importance and of the victory. They prepare us for the coming struggles and victories. Overcoming slavery was certainly a big struggle. The end of slavery was certainly a big victory. I am so glad we have the official federal holiday for Juneteenth. Our challenge is to use Juneteenth as a springboard to accomplish great things. 

  About the author: Hank Sanders represented District 23 in the Alabama Senate from 1983 to 2018.

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