The United States currently has ten Federal holidays. Recent events have brought the prospect of an eleventh into the national conversation: Juneteenth. Though Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior, news of freedom didn’t reach the last slaves in Galveston, Texas until June 19th, 1865.
Juneteenth has been known by several names: Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Jubilee Day. Whatever the name, it is time we create a new Federal holiday to recognize the abolition of slavery, the first of many steps to correct America’s original sin of racism. A bipartisan group of Senators recently introduced a bill to do just that. It should be made into law without delay.
Some Americans may not understand why we would want a holiday to commemorate a very dark part of our history: slavery. To explain, consider the tradition and meaning of some of our other most important holidays.
In July, we celebrate Independence, and the birth of our nation. In February, we celebrate the birthdays of our two greatest Presidents: Washington, who made thirteen colonies into a nation; and Lincoln, who held that nation together in its darkest hour and defeated a traitorous rebellion.
In May and November, we celebrate the men and women who gave their lives to defend the U.S. from its enemies, foreign and domestic. And in January, we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., whose work brought civil and voting rights to black Americans.
None of these holidays is meant to celebrate perfection. America is a great country, yes, perhaps even the greatest in history. I certainly think so. But Americans, and conservatives especially, must reject the idea that America is, or has ever been, a perfect country. The thing that makes America great is how it has constantly, albeit sometimes slowly, made itself better.
No holiday would reflect that better than Juneteenth, which is already celebrated by millions of black Americans today. For over 150 years, Juneteenth has been marked by parades, songs, barbecues, and religious and civic events. It is a day of joy, full of black music, art, history and culture. It is also a day of solemn recognition, of the struggle by black Americans to achieve equal rights in America.
Conservatives often criticize the Left for historical ignorance. Most recently, Conservatives rightly criticized the New York Times’ 1619 Project for attempting to rewrite history and claim that the American Revolution was launched for the purpose of preserving slavery. But conservatives in America have been suffering from a similar memory lapse.
The existence of slavery from the framing of our Constitution in 1787 until abolition in 1865 is a stain on this country, and one that conservatives usually prefer to ignore or not discuss.
We should reject a patriotism of ignorance, one that refuses any criticism. America is good because its citizen critics have made it better. This does not mean we should allow liberals to turn Juneteenth, a joyful celebration of freedom, into an annual day of white guilt or collective shame. But true patriotism allows us to recognize and atone for the dark parts of our history.
Every year, Americans gather to celebrate our founding documents, and with good reason. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have arguably done more to liberate humanity than any others in history. Hundreds of years after they were written, they have made possible a massive, wealthy, multi-racial democracy.
But they were not perfect as written, nor do they stand alone in the American canon. On Independence day, we often sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” which commemorates the fight for freedom against the British crown. We also read the preamble of the Declaration, with its famous words, “that all men are created equal…"
On Juneteenth, every American child should learn the words of freedom songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and read the Emancipation Proclamation.
Our Constitution provides a process for amendment for a reason, and it has been amended 27 times to fulfill its aim of creating a more perfect union. To that end, we should amend our tradition of summer celebration and make Juneteenth a Federal holiday, observed by the entire nation.