The Quintessential Americanness of Juneteenth

The most famous Emancipation holiday is more necessary now than it has ever been.

A group of men wade into the ocean as part of a Juneteenth ceremony
A group of men wade into the ocean as part of a Juneteenth ceremony in 2005 on Virginia Key, a formerly segregated beach in Miami.. (Wilfredo Lee / AP)
Editor’s Note: We’ve gathered dozens of the most important pieces from our archives on race and racism in America. Find the collection here.

Juneteenth has always been touched with irony. Although it is the most popular Emancipation Day holiday in the country, it marks neither the legal nor the de facto end of slavery in the country.

The lesser-known Jubilee on New Year’s Day more properly commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1863 executive order that technically freed enslaved people in the rebel states. Memorial Day—first celebrated by freedmen in April 1865—commemorates the end of that war and the lives lost fighting over the scourge of slavery. The end of slavery as it had been practiced came with the Thirteenth Amendment, which on December 6, 1865, officially ended the institution and freed the last few humans who remained in chattel bondage under its bloody regime.

Juneteenth, rather, celebrates a belated liberation. Enslaved people in the Confederacy who didn’t manage to escape across Union lines or find themselves in occupied territory were not all made free by Lincoln’s proclamation, and had to wait until the end of the Civil War to take their first free breaths. In isolated Texas, word of the official end of fighting, the surrenders of Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, and the capture of President Jefferson Davis through May 1865 arrived late. Freedom finally came to Texas on June 19 of that year, after a proclamation by General Gordon Granger in Galveston solidified the emancipation of the quarter million enslaved people in the state.

In its spread across the country and gradual supplanting of other emancipation celebrations, Juneteenth has always retained that sense of belatedness. It is the observance of a victory delayed, of foot-dragging and desperate resistance by white supremacy against the tide of human rights, and of a legal freedom trampled by the might of state violence. As the belated emancipation embedded in the holiday foretold generations of black codes, forced labor, racial terror, police brutality, and a century-long regime of Jim Crow, it also imbued the holiday with a sense of a Sisyphean prospect of an abridged liberty, with full citizenship always taunting and tantalizing, but just one more protest down the road.

Today, that abridgment is just as loud as the brass bands, drum lines, and multitudes of majorettes marching down Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X Boulevards on Juneteenth.

In Minneapolis, Juneteenth comes on the heels of the masses who protested against the verdict in the killing of Philando Castile. Last July, Castile, a 32-year-old black nutrition-services supervisor, was stopped by a police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, while driving with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter through the suburbs of St. Paul. The pretenses of that stop were flimsy—Castile allegedly resembled a robbery suspect—and the stop was simply the latest and last of a lifetime of harassment and targeting of Castile by police, to the tune of almost 50 stops in 13 years. In the abundance of caution that likely comes as a survival instinct to a man so targeted by officers, Castile warned Yanez about his legally registered handgun before he moved.

Only three living souls truly know what happened in the next split second. Yanez claims that he believed Castile was reaching for the gun when the officer chose to open fire multiple times at close range, killing Castile. Reynolds’s Facebook Live video shows the horrific, bloody aftermath, along with Reynolds’s claims that Castile was merely reaching for his identification, not his gun. Nevertheless, on Friday a jury decided that Yanez’s version would carry the weight of truth. The script had been written. Castile was as good as dead from the moment Yanez allegedly feared for his life, and the law stood behind his killer.

Predictably, the protests across the country barely had a chance to dissipate before the next outrage. On Sunday morning, Seattle police shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant black mother, in front of her children while she allegedly brandished a knife, all in response to her own call to report a burglary. The details of this case are still hazy, but Lyles’s relatives attest that she had mental-health issues, and that officers explicitly promised her they would not shoot her if they responded. The Seattle Police Department has been operating under court supervision since the Department of Justice reported that more than half of its incidents of excessive use of force and officer-involved killings had involved people suffering mental and behavioral crises.

Lyles and Castile are two of the latest additions to a group as old as blackness, a list of black names and bodies trampled under the heel of state violence. That list itself is a subset of the lives ruined or ended by white supremacy’s iron grasp. Their addition to that tradition—and the expected denial of justice in Castile’s case—make this Juneteenth an even more bittersweet celebration than usual.

This is in keeping with Juneteenth tradition. The second-most-famous Juneteenth celebration came in 1968, just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and during the disintegration of the remnants of what could properly be called the civil-rights movement. The holiday exists as a national rather than a local Texan phenomenon today partly because of the decision by King’s associate Ralph Abernathy and widow, Coretta Scott King, to cut short the posthumous Poor People’s March on June 19 and commemorate it with Juneteenth celebrations. The holiday dispersed through the post–Great Migration black-American diaspora as a sort of homegoing for King and the other lives lost to insurgent white-supremacist violence. And like many black homegoings, it found a way to fuse sorrow and jubilation. Abernathy and Coretta Scott King knew that fusion was the only way to continue the work without breaking.

In the spirit of that 1968 observance, it is clear that now more than ever, Juneteenth is a necessary cornerstone of the American tradition, and a worthy public holiday today. It is worthy because of the dizzying contradiction at its core—and all American holidays have at least a touch of contradiction. It is both a second Independence Day and a reminder of ongoing oppression and continuing forms of stricture. It is a memorial to the dead and a remonstrance to those who killed them. It is a clear articulation of the fact that America can never be free until her people are free, and a celebration of the people who have worked to make it so. Juneteenth is the purest distillation of the evils that still plague America, and a celebration of the good people who fought those evils. It is tragedy and comedy, hope and setbacks.

As a national holiday, Juneteenth, immersed as it is in both the canon of old history and the ongoing struggle for civil rights, would be the only one that celebrates liberty in America as it actually is: delayed.

The enslaved people who experienced the rapture of emancipation on this day 152 years ago likely couldn’t have predicted the exact path the country has taken since. But they knew in the marrow of their bones and the scars on their backs that their victory had come at the greatest possible cost. They knew the impossible ardor that would be required to pick up the pieces of their broken families and leave their descendants with a better life, and they continued to celebrate Juneteenth even as it became clear that America would not so easily yield them its embrace. Their hearts rejoiced in victory, with a joy that could not be stolen.