Congress Has Much More to do to Really Celebrate Juneteenth

By Shiva Sethi

I’m not sure how I’m going to celebrate Juneteenth this year – but I know how Congress should. They should pass comprehensive voting rights legislation, as well as legislation to ensure our country has a strong and equitable recovery.

This week, the House and Senate passed, and President Biden signed legislation designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, the day when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, and freed 250,000 enslaved people – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. This new federal holiday is almost poetic in that it reflects the deferred dreams of generations of Black people as slavery gave way to Jim Crow laws, and Jim Crow to mass incarceration. 

It’s important that our country as a whole—and all of us individually—does more to recognize and remember Black history. That’s why CLASP staff went to the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2019 and why we continually examine the historical roots of the policies we work on. It’s historic that Juneteenth legislation passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support. But it’s not enough. We can't let policymakers get away with creating a new holiday but turning a blind eye to rampant voter suppression, economic and health inequities, and an absurd moral panic about Black history related to critical race theory. Juneteenth is a symbol. And while symbols matter, they don't pay the bills—and they definitely don’t address injustice. 

For four years, I walked past a Confederate monument known as Silent Sam on my college’s campus. The statue was a monument to white supremacy, the Confederacy, and Black oppression. When I walked past it, I’d often think of my grandmother, the child of sharecroppers from a small town in North Carolina buried just a few hundred steps from where the statue once stood and who had spent her life fighting for civil rights. When a group of courageous students tore the statue from its pedestal in 2018, I was proud, and heartened—but I never confused the symbol with the goal of realizing justice. Black students at my alma mater continue to fight for justice on campus as they combat inequity and racism within the school community, administration, and faculty. The latest campus skirmish relates to the denial of tenure to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones who authored the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which centers the contributions of Black people and the legacy of slavery in our nation’s history. Taking down Silent Sam and recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday are important wins that can be used to build momentum, but we shouldn’t dare confuse them with victory. 

This Juneteenth I hope you’ll take time to reflect on your role in the struggle for justice. We can’t wait any longer. As Langston Hughes said, “I do not need my freedom when I’m dead/I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.” I hope you’ll consider finding a way to support a local organization or build community and power to fight racism, injustice, and poverty. And if you’re in Congress – you need to get to work.