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Why Juneteenth Should Go Back to Being a Local Celebration

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While the Fourth of July symbolizes a united resolve against a common enemy of freedom for our nation, Juneteenth as celebrated nationally is not intended to unite Americans. Instead, it serves as a perpetual reminder for those who lament a historical past and seek contemporary redress for injustices they did not personally endure.


The government’s selection and recognition of federal holidays are deeply rooted in the societal, historical, and cultural narratives that define the nation. These holidays allow citizens to reflect, encouraging a deeper understanding of the nation’s heritage and principles.

However, the holiday calendar often omits many events and figures, highlighting the selective nature of historical commemoration and the debates over whose stories are celebrated. Thus, establishing federal holidays is both a nod to the past and a reflection of contemporary societal values and the evolving national identity.

The recent addition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, exemplifies this nod to the past while reflecting evolving societal values and a commitment to inclusivity. And yet the debate over Juneteenth and the Fourth of July has intensified over the last three years, reflecting broader and sometimes contentious discussions about race, history, and national unity.

While President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have emphasized that Juneteenth is a celebration for everyone, opponents like Paul Gosar from Arizona and Matt Rosendale from Montana argue that it exacerbates racial divisions and promotes identity politics.

This article explores the historical significance of both holidays, the perspectives of key black leaders, and the contemporary debates surrounding their celebration. It concludes with my belief that Juneteenth should go back to being a localized celebration in the state where the original event took place rather than being granted national recognition.

Some Historical Context

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of slavery, over two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth, named for this date, marks the true enforcement of emancipation and is a critical moment in our nation’s history.

Though now recognized as a federal holiday, Juneteenth’s origins are deeply rooted in local Texas celebrations that have persisted for over 150 years. Following General Gordon Granger’s 1865 announcement, black Americans in Texas began commemorating June 19th, known as “Jubilee Day,” with parades, musical performances, and communal feasts. Unlike other holidays born from federal proclamations, Juneteenth emerged organically within Texan communities, celebrated for decades without official recognition.

Originally, Juneteenth celebrations were primarily a Texan tradition. The significance of this day has grown, culminating in its recognition as a federal holiday in 2021. Juneteenth now serves as a national acknowledgment of the struggles and triumphs of black Americans throughout history.

The Fourth of July, or Independence Day, celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. This day is synonymous with American ideals of freedom and democracy, marked by fireworks, parades, and a display of national pride.

Yet, celebrating the Fourth of July has always been complex for some blacks. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, its promises of liberty did not extend to enslaved people. This historical context fuels ongoing debates about the holiday’s inclusivity and the true realization of its founding ideals.

Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July

Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned leading abolitionist, delivered a searing critique of the Fourth of July in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass, one of the 19th century’s most eloquent and influential black leaders, offers a critical perspective that shapes the disdain many prominent black voices feel towards the Fourth of July.

In this address, Douglass denounced the celebration of liberty in a nation that still held millions in bondage. His words laid bare the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom in a nation that condoned slavery. Douglass stated, “What to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Delivered two years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Douglass’s speech was a powerful call for moral and political reckoning. The new law required escaped slaves to be returned to their enslavers, highlighting the federal government’s role in perpetuating slavery. Douglass’s critique underscored the nation’s failure to live up to its proclaimed ideals.

However, few commentators today who echo Douglass’s words consider that they live in an era brimming with opportunities Douglass could only dream of. Despite this, they still claim not to be free. Therefore, the invocation of Douglass’s criticism must be balanced with an understanding of the historical and social transformations that have occurred since his era.

Contemporary Debates and the Role of Juneteenth

What does the Fourth of July have to do with Juneteenth’s celebration? For those not deeply rooted in black culture, gaining this understanding enhances the context behind the historical push for Juneteenth’s recognition as a federal holiday.

Supporters of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” celebrated as the Black National Anthem and now featured at major sporting events, seek to honor ethnic distinctiveness under the banner of inclusivity.

Similarly, advocates of Juneteenth seek comparable recognition. They argue that federal recognition of Juneteenth acknowledges a vital part of American history that has long been neglected. They see it as a step toward recognizing African Americans’ contributions and experiences and promoting a more inclusive national narrative. Once elevated to a federal holiday, Juneteenth was no longer just “Juneteenth” but officially renamed “Juneteenth National Independence Day.”

Critics argue that nationalizing Juneteenth promotes division rather than unity. They claim that it develops a narrative that focuses on victimhood and oppression, potentially taking away from the Fourth of July’s larger celebration of American freedom.

Celebrating Freedom or Grievance?

Marc Lamont Hill, a well-known black intellectual and activist, has criticized the notion of making Juneteenth a federal holiday, suggesting that it does nothing to address systemic issues or promote true freedom.

Though Hill and I often disagree on many topics, we concur on this matter, albeit for different reasons. I acknowledge the disunity and division that many, including Hill, aim to create and celebrate through the holiday. Conversely, Hill wishes to preserve the holiday’s distinct expression of black culture.

Unlike the Fourth of July, which symbolizes a united resolve against a common enemy of freedom for our nation, Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas, marks a liberation for a specific group in a particular location, not all emancipated slaves. Hill argues that national recognition dilutes the essence of the holiday. As a separatist, he opposes the commercialization and broad celebration of Juneteenth, viewing it as a distinctly black holiday.

In a recent sermon, Marc Lamont Hill used the Juneteenth celebration to emphasize the importance of speaking truth to power, even at great personal risk, to fight injustice and to secure freedom for all. When Hill used the word “all,” his predominantly black audience understood that he was addressing all black people. Moreover, the style of his sermon echoed James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, rather than Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

Hill stressed the importance of celebrating Juneteenth in a way that resists commercialization and external influences. Instead of allowing business interests to appropriate the holiday, he urged the audience to uphold the Juneteenth spirit by envisioning a future of justice and love for black people.

Hill called for individuals to challenge broken systems and advocate for systemic change, echoing the spirit of Frederick Douglass’s critique of American hypocrisy during the Fourth of July celebrations while ignoring Douglass’s context.

Instead of celebrating Juneteenth as an expression of the nation’s founding ideals, Hill used the holiday to advocate for the ongoing pursuit of “racial justice.” Toward the end of his sermon, he presented an extensive list of policy recommendations for ongoing racial justice, framed within a socially just interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.

But a nationalized Juneteenth is not intended to unite our nation, as thought leaders like Marc Lamont Hill demonstrate. Instead, it serves as a perpetual reminder for those who lament a historical past and seek contemporary redress for injustices they did not personally endure. I believe this was not the intention of those who locally celebrated the historical significance of the holiday.

Conclusion

What would it have looked like if Marc Lamont Hill had used Exodus 12:14 as his passage to remember Juneteenth?

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.”

The date for Israel to remember their departure from Egypt is the 14th day of the first month (Nisan) in the Hebrew calendar. This is commemorated during the Passover festival. 

The Passover celebration includes the Seder meal, recounting the story of the Exodus, and observing various rituals to remember God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

This scriptural mandate emphasizes the crucial role of holidays in bringing people together, pointing them to God’s miraculous works, and inspiring them to follow His ways. Just as Passover unites the Jewish community in remembrance of divine deliverance, our contemporary holidays should foster greater unity and mutual respect, remind us of God’s ongoing work, and encourage us to walk in His truth and for His purposes.

National holidays are more than just days off; they are opportunities to reflect on our collective history and values. Both Juneteenth and the Fourth of July hold significant places in our nation’s history, albeit for different reasons.

With this consideration, I believe Juneteenth should not have been granted federal recognition. Instead, Juneteenth should preserve its importance in its birthplace, Galveston, Texas, and for those who honor its original and unique significance.


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