Juneteenth has long been observed as a day of Black liberation, commemorating the end of slavery in America. But this year, with protests about racial justice filling the streets, more people and institutions are joining in the celebration. The Virginia and New York state governments declared this Friday, June 19, a holiday, and companies like Target, Nike, and Postmates are giving workers the day off. (Full disclosure: Slate is doing so as well.)
On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Adam Serwer, a politics writer at the Atlantic, about the history and meaning of Juneteenth and what the recent embrace of the holiday says about racial progress in America. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: What is the story of Juneteenth? How did it become so prominent nationally?
Adam Serwer: So the Emancipation Proclamation frees the slaves in the Confederacy. A lot of Confederate slave owners freak out because a lot of slaves are running towards Union lines. They want to defect, they want to join the Union Army, they want to help out however they can, or they just want to be free. And as a result, a lot of slave owners pack up and head to Texas, and Texas is one of the last states to have slavery really abolished. That comes with General Order No. 3, which is issued by Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865.
And we should say the Emancipation Proclamation was 1863.
Right. So this is years after technically all the slaves in the Confederacy were supposed to be free. Part of the celebration comes from the fact that a lot of the enslaved folks in Texas, the emancipated, were moved there to avoid emancipation. So there is a delayed celebration but also a sense that this is finally happening for them. That probably explains why this celebration became so prominent both in the state and why Black Americans and other states have latched onto it as the predominant celebration of emancipation, even though it comes years after the Emancipation Proclamation was actually issued.
I’ve heard Juneteenth described as a particularly apt holiday to commemorate Black liberation because it represents the way freedom and justice in the United States has always been delayed for Black people. And I thought that was just such an interesting way to put it, where it was an acknowledgment that we did declare that this was illegal, but we didn’t actually make it happen for years.
Yeah. In a way it’s a metaphor, because the declaration of progress happens long before actual progress is achieved.
And awareness around Juneteenth has tended to expand with the growth of major Black liberation movements in the United States—Reconstruction, the civil rights era.
If you look at it that way, it’s not surprising that there’s been a resurgence of the effort to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday, because we’re going through one of those moments now where there is a lot of political momentum for efforts to dismantle systemic discrimination. At least for the moment. The history of these things is that these moments only last for so long. And particularly when efforts to remedy discrimination start to touch material concerns, you tend to see that tide of public support recede, particularly from white Americans.
As Martin Luther King starts pivoting towards concerns that are not just about political rights but about economic concerns, you can see that resistance start to grow. There’s a lot of resistance to the Fair Housing Act and to the integration of neighborhoods as well as a great deal of resistance to the integration of schools. When civil rights movements shift from political rights to more material concerns about wealth and disparities and stuff like that, you can see a lot of resistance from people who were previously sympathetic. And I think that’s probably going to happen here, if history is any guide. It’s one thing to say the police shouldn’t kill people, they shouldn’t discriminate. For people who are very conservative on issues of race, that seems like a very reasonable demand. But when you start talking about redistribution of wealth, people tend to start becoming a lot more skeptical, because they feel like they’re going to have things that belong to them taken from them.
This year, with so many more people committing to celebrating Juneteenth, I’m struck by how different people have said different things about what the holiday is for. Some have said it’s for volunteering and learning about racism, and other people have said it’s more about being with family. I wonder how you think the holiday should be observed.
I feel like there is an impulse to want to be solemn about it, but that’s not the way that I’ve experienced it for most of my life. I think it’s important that people remember why it exists, certainly. But I’m not against people celebrating it the way we celebrate something like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, where the historical significance of the holiday is understood by the people who are celebrating it but people are also having a very good time.
I wonder if you worry at all about whether widespread acceptance of Juneteenth might dilute its meaning.
I’m not worried about it. As long as people remember what it’s for, I don’t have a concern. I mean, even Memorial Day was initially a Black American celebration at the end of the Civil War. As long as people have a sense of historical memory for what Juneteenth is, why it’s being celebrated, why emancipation came to Texas so late, and what that means for racial progress in the country, I don’t really have a problem with it.
Most states already acknowledge Juneteenth. But this year you have Virginia declaring its intent to make it a holiday, and all of these companies saying that they will acknowledge this day, from J.C. Penney to Twitter to Spotify to my company, Slate.
There’s a lot of upside to recognizing Juneteenth for companies, and not a lot of downside. The upside is that you get to say, We’re recognizing this celebration of emancipation as an important thing. If you’re a corporation, you get to sell people Juneteenth swag of some kind. You get to sell beer for Juneteenth. You get to sell hot dogs for Juneteenth. You get to sell Juneteenth T-shirts, whatever. But you also don’t give up very much. It’s not like you’re sacrificing a lot by recognizing this thing as a holiday, and you may get a lot of gain out of it in the sense that people will see you as someone who is politically and culturally welcoming in a way that may get you more customers. So on the one hand, it’s a nice symbolic progress. But on the other hand, it doesn’t require a lot of sacrifice, and there’s a lot of gain to be had from doing it.
We’re still in a capitalist society.
I don’t think corporations, from supermarkets to clothing stores to anything else, are going to be that upset if there’s another July Fourth in June.
Right. One more reason to barbecue. One more reason to come buy fireworks.
This low-cost way for a company to acknowledge the moment—you see that in some of the movement around Juneteenth. A couple of places that have decided to celebrate the holiday have had little scandals of their own—the NFL, the New York Times. And I wonder if you worry that for some of these companies, declaring a holiday is where the work begins and ends.
Well, I think it would be very hard to find a corporation in the United States that hasn’t had to deal with some kind of racial controversy at one point or another. I think the important thing is to remember that observing Juneteenth is not a way to, as President Barack Obama once put it, “purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.” It’s not a way to inoculate yourself against charges of racism or abandon whatever commitment you might have to treating your employees equally and with respect. And people shouldn’t see it that way. But to the extent that the holiday increases the recognition of the significance of slavery and emancipation in American history, then I think that it’s probably a good thing.
A few weeks back, Alexis Ohanian—one of the founders of Reddit, who’s also the husband of Serena Williams—decided to step down from the board of his company and encourage the board to select a Black person to replace him. I was thinking about that in the context of all this. I was like, wow, that’s a pretty powerful action. If a company really wants to respond to the moment, is there something it should be doing?
If you’re recognizing Juneteenth but you’re not involving Black people in your company, by hiring them or by putting them in leadership positions or paying them a fair salary, then your commitment to racial justice is obviously bullshit. And to the extent that you have Black employees at your company who see themselves being mistreated or not being considered for leadership positions or being paid less than everybody else, those employees are going to recognize that for what it is and not as a genuine commitment to any sort of racial justice or equality.
It sounds like you’re saying this is shorthand, but it remains to be seen if this shorthand is meaningful.
I think that it’s meaningful in a symbolic way. It’s both easy to understate the importance of symbolism and to overstate it, in the sense that this does not remove any of the ongoing institutional barriers to racial equality in the United States but it is a nice sort of cultural thing to acknowledge the extent of the Black contribution to American history and how much of that contribution has come with tremendous suffering.