For many Black Americans, Juneteenth is the oldest celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. For many white Americans, last year’s protests over police brutality drove awareness of Juneteenth’s significance. For all Americans, Juneteenth is an opportunity to remember that our rights — including our First Amendment freedoms — are only guaranteed when we can all exercise them.
The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but that news did not travel to the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, until June 19, 1865, making them among the last to be freed.
Seven-year-old Molly Harrell, who was enslaved on a plantation more than 200 miles north of Galveston, recalled the moment, saying, “Me and my mother left right off … we all walked down the road singing and shouting.”
For many African Americans, this would be the beginning of the fight to exercise their new freedom. Even with new constitutional protections, Black Americans faced obstacles to practicing their freedoms in everyday life. Many white people refused to accept Black people as their equals. The most hateful began a campaign of terror, attacking and killing Black people. Defying these threats, Black Texans observed the first anniversary of Juneteenth.
Celebrating it each year became an act of resistance and a show of strength despite continued segregation and threats of violence. During the 1950s and ’60s, Black activists connected their fight for equal rights to the fight to end slavery. Juneteenth embodied all of the pain and triumph of their shared experience.
In 1980, Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday. Since then, 47 states have recognized it as a holiday or day of observance, and it will now become a federal holiday as well. Celebrations feature parades and fireworks, street fairs and rodeos, and presentations about Black heritage. Some people think of Juneteenth as America’s second Independence Day. The Fourth of July commemorates when white Americans gained independence, while Juneteenth is the recognition of when all Americans became free.
Today, Juneteenth reminds us that we must continue to fight for those whose rights are being infringed upon daily. Celebrating Juneteenth reminds us that freedom and equality for everyone are values we can all get behind.
Trey Daniel is the education manager of the Georgia Rights, Responsibility, Respect Project, an education initiative of the Religious Freedom Center.