The last several weeks have been painful for Americans. A blinding spotlight has shown on our country, exposing racism, prejudice and inequality coursing through our nation, while protestors course through the streets demanding change. For some, the harshness of this light is too much, and we’d rather the attention on our faults just disappear.
Today, however, is an occasion that calls on us to not look away, but to stand up and confront our failings head on. Today is Juneteenth, a day to recommit ourselves to the promise of liberty and equality.
In a few short weeks we will celebrate our independence as a nation, but July 4th was not the day that all Americans became free. That day didn’t arrive for more than 80 years, and it didn’t even truly come with the Emancipation Proclamation. Two and a half years after Lincoln declared an end to slavery, slaveholders in Texas continued to hold free men in bondage, until June 19th, when General Granger arrived to enforce the law. As a result, this day has long been celebrated in the black community, though overlooked by the country as a whole.
But this is not a holiday for only some Americans, it is an American holiday. It is not only the day that the last Americans were freed and finally got their inherent right to freedom, it is the day that America finally liberated itself of an inhuman and intolerable institution, that by its very existence rebutted our claims to be a free nation of, by and for the people.
While we celebrate this important day, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Juneteenth marks the end of a struggle for liberty or equality. Even after the end of the Civil War and adoption of the 15th Amendment, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching and other tools of oppression continued for more than a hundred years. Today, racism still plagues America, and our justice system fails to uphold its promise of equal justice under the law.
There is much work left to be done, and we cannot rest on past accomplishments, allowing ‘better’ to suffice when freedom and equality are the standards to which we hold ourselves. That’s why we all have to be part of the movement to fully honor America’s commitment to our founding principles. We are not a perfect nation, but what has always made America exceptional is our ability to confront our failings and change for the better.
That can only happen if we all work together, guided by shared principles, and committed to a brighter future for all Americans. This and every Juneteenth, we should commit ourselves to that purpose.