Many of us were taught that America gained its independence on July 4, 1776. That is the day delegates from the 13 original colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” and so forth.
But “all men” did not include all men (let alone women). There were tens of thousands of slaves in the new country when the Constitution was ratified and that number would grow into the millions. Initially, our new Constitution expressly barred the federal government from prohibiting slavery. Slaves were considered three-fifths of a real person in a compromise meant to give the slave economy of the South greater leverage. Most of our early presidents were slaveholders.
I suspect there are people reading these words who had never heard of “Juneteenth” until recently. June 19, 1865, is the day that slaves in Galveston, Texas, were finally told they were free — a year and a half after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The date has been commemorated in various ways across the country ever since, and last week President Joe Biden proclaimed June 19 a federal holiday, giving it the same status as Memorial Day and Independence Day.
There will be those who roll their eyes — and it won’t just be conservative white folks grousing. Many African Americans worry — with plenty of justification — that proclaiming Juneteenth an official holiday is purely performative. It is nothing compared to what they deserve, which is full economic, political and social opportunity free from discrimination on the basis of race. It doesn’t address systemic racism in our justice system. It certainly isn’t reparations for the generations of harm slavery has done.
It is only a baby step in the right direction.
But here’s an idea, one that might increase our understanding of each other and elevate our summer holidays. Juneteenth is already known by many observers as “Freedom Day” for obvious reasons. July 4 has always been associated with American freedoms. What if the period beginning with June 19 and continuing for two weeks through July 4 was to become a sort of “freedom season,” when we celebrated our freedom, acknowledged our past and truly worked toward a more perfect union? It could be a time of learning and listening that culminates in the fireworks of the Fourth of July.
Many of us have already begun our long-overdue history lesson. We’ve studied the New York Times’ terrific “1619 Project” and read anti-racist books like Isabel Wilkerson’s enlightening “Caste” and gained a much deeper understanding of atrocities like the massacre at Tulsa 100 years ago. What if we spent the days leading up to the Fourth of July imagining how to make voting — the foundation of our freedoms — more accessible to all who are eligible. We could endeavor to make our institutions more diverse and inclusive. And we could do this work together, healing divisions in the process. Then, perhaps, the word freedom wouldn’t be merely a patriotic platitude.
Wouldn’t that be reason to celebrate?
— Clay Lambert