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Lessons from Juneteenth
Making June 19 a federal holiday a good idea
An unidentified speaker addresses an audience in this file photo from June 27, 2018, during Great Bend’s Juneteenth celebration in the courthouse square. - photo by Tribune file photo

Starting this Saturday, the month of June will have a federal holiday.

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Tuesday to recognize June 19, or Juneteenth, as an official federal holiday. The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act passed in the House on Wednesday. President Joe Biden signed it into law on Thursday. Now every federal employee will be granted a day off to commemorate June 19, 1865. That is the day that slaves in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they had been freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier. The day is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly took time to honor Juneteenth on Wednesday by signing a proclamation.

“Today’s proclamation and the spirit of Juneteenth serve as a reminder that, while we have come a long way in our efforts to promote equity and justice, there is work left to do,” Governor Kelly said. “As we celebrate the end of slavery in the United States and learn more about our nation’s history, Juneteenth is also an opportunity to recommit ourselves to making Kansas a better place for all to call home.”

Great Bend has celebrated Juneteenth in the past with Saturday events in the courthouse square. The 2018 celebration was organized with help from the Hutchinson branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Local organizers included Thelma Russi and Bernice Gray.

Much like Cinco de Mayo, in Great Bend our Juneteenth celebrations are one part history and two parts cultural festival. Local sponsors said our 2018 event would celebrate “life, love and community.” There was food, music, arts and crafts, storytellers, poets, children’s activities and a cakewalk.

Back in 2018, and no doubt earlier, there was already talk about making Juneteenth a federal holiday. In 2020, after the death of George Floyd, the idea gained a lot of traction in Congress.

From New Year’s Day to Christmas, our federal holidays should include everyone. Four of our federal holidays gained that status on June 28, 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law that made New Year’s Day, July 4, Thanksgiving and Christmas federal holidays in Washington, D.C., giving 5,300 federal employees a paid day off. His aim was to unite the North and South after the war. Today, recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday could have a similar purpose, addressing racism and emphasizing basic human rights and equality. Supporters see the new holiday as a day of national atonement.

Ideally, it can become an opportunity for learning why it won’t do to say we “don’t see color,” and that “all lives matter” when it is time to say “Black lives do matter.” With apologies to George Orwell, we cannot claim we’re all equal if some are more equal than others.