Americans celebrate Juneteenth as the push for social justice persists

Monday marked just the second time in U.S. history that the federal government has recognized Juneteenth. The holiday celebrates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought word of slavery’s end to Galveston, Texas, freeing the last enslaved people after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Peniel Joseph, founder of The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today marked just a second time in U.S. history that the federal government has recognized Juneteenth. The holiday celebrates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought word of slavery's end to Galveston, Texas, freeing the last enslaved people, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

    Amna Nawaz looks at the country's remembrances and the conversation around this history.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Washington, D.C., today, Vice President Kamala Harris surprised students visiting the National Museum of African American History with a special message for Juneteenth.

    Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States: Let this be a day that is a day to celebrate the principle of freedom, but to speak about it honestly and accurately.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Galveston, Texas, home to the longest-running Juneteenth celebration, the past was alive. The Saturday event honored the last enslaved people in Galveston in 1865 and one of the men who spent his career making sure their stories were told.

    Alana Edwards-Holloway, Daughter of Former Texas State Representative Al Edwards: My father, late and former state Representative Al Edwards, was majorly focused on making Juneteenth not only a state holiday, but also a national holiday. Everyone deserves to know the truth about the history that happened right here in Galveston in Texas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Generations of Black families, like Angela Milburn's here in Houston, Texas, have long celebrated this day.

  • Angela Milburn, Texas Resident:

    I cherish this day and all the days that follow this one and that came before this, because of what a lot of my ancestors went through that knew each other and the struggle that they did for us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The so-called grandmother of that modern struggle, former teacher and civil rights leader Opal Lee, who stood by President Biden side as he made Juneteenth a federal holiday last year.

    In Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday, the 95-year-old Lee led her annual two-and-a-half mile march to mark the nearly two-and-a-half years it took between the Emancipation Proclamation and Union troops officially announcing the end of slavery in Texas. The work to end its long legacy, Lee said, is far from over.

  • Opal Lee, Civil Rights Leader:

    Thank yourself, a committee of one, because you know people who aren't on the same page that you are. And so you're going to have to change their minds.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In all 50 states and the District of Colombia recognize Juneteenth in some form. Texas was first back in 1980. But, so far, only 24 states and D.C. have made June 19 a public paid holiday, though more states could soon follow.

    The city of Boston marked the holiday with a weekend celebration of Black arts and culture. Philadelphia marked the day with its first Juneteenth parade since the start of the pandemic, a celebration of America's story more fully told.

    Well, Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday certainly elevated conversations about Black history and the legacy of slavery in America, but where are those conversations today?

    To talk more about that, I'm joined now by Professor Peniel Joseph. He is the founding director of the Center For the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, where he's also a professor of history. He's the author of the upcoming book "The Third Reconstruction: America's Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century."

    Professor Joseph, welcome back to the "NewsHour." And thank you for joining us on this holiday.

    Peniel Joseph, Founding Director, Center for the Study of Race and Democracy: Great to be here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So I want to reference something you wrote recently marking this second Juneteenth that we're noting as a federal holiday here in the states.

    You said that you found hope in what you called the resurgent interest in Black history that followed you Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday. So, I wanted to ask you, what — what was that hope based on? What were you seeing happening in the last year?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, I think the hope is based on the fact that the country, really led in this case by both grassroots interest in Juneteenth in the Black community, but then President Biden and others, is trying to confront slavery and the fact that we are a democracy whose roots are in racial slavery.

    And that makes us a complex place to live in, right? So when people say that the country suffers from systemic racism, they're not saying that because somehow they dislike or hate the country. They're saying that because they love the country.

    So Juneteenth sort of reflects a complicated history of America and American democracy. But, paradoxically, it brings us closer to becoming that beloved community that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote and spent his whole life trying to achieve.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You had have this one line in a recent piece that stuck with me. I will read it here.

    You said: "As a federal holiday, Juneteenth now offers a window for Americans into understanding how the political is personal."

    What did you mean by that?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, these stories — we have now so many great stories about people celebrating Juneteenth with their family and their friends over the decades.

    These were real people. So these are really personal stories. They're stories of Black people in Galveston celebrating. They're stories of Black people trying to leave plantations in Eastern Texas and other places to reunite with loved ones.

    So when we think about the personal as the political, this is as important a holiday for America as July 4 our is. And the reason why it's so important is that there was four million Americans who were disallowed to be considered citizens, who were disallowed to embody the dignity that they knew they had solely because of race and because of slavery.

    So, Juneteenth provides us a context to understand that, hey, this isn't a story about them. This is a story about us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    At the same time, when we talk about the political, I have to point out there are some strong opposing forces at play in a lot of these conversations, right?

    We now have a slew of legislative efforts across the country led mostly by Republican lawmakers to stop efforts in schools from people teaching about the history of American — of racism in America, about the afterlife, as you put it, of our system of enslavement, slavery in America, punishing teachers who try to talk about some of these topics.

    What does that tell you about where we are?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, I — it tells me that we're a complicated nation.

    So, on the one hand, we have got Juneteenth and supporters of multiracial democracy. On the other hand, we have anti-CRT legislation and we have the January 6 hearings and supporters of really the past racial status quo that existed during the era of Jim Crow segregation, that existed during slavery.

    So we are still caught in that bind of the folks who believe and support multiracial democracy and those who think about America as a much less inclusive place, as a place that should be dominated just by white male founders. And founders there would be in quotes, because we know that the founders of the country were actually multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural women, as well as men.

    So I think it just shows me that we are making progress, but we are still caught in the feedback loop of the history that those who don't want us to know about Juneteenth seem determined to deny.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the January 6 hearings. So I wonder if you could explain that a little bit. What's the parallel between what you see unfolding there and our conversations around Black history?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, January 6 is the grassroots cousin of the racial intolerance that we see used to divide folks politically in the 21st century.

    So, January 6 has real roots in the period of Reconstruction right after the Civil War, where, on the one hand, like what Juneteenth reflects, we had a move to reimagine American democracy as multiracial, multicultural, but, on the other hand, we had the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. We had the rise of poll taxes and legislation to deny Black voting rights. We had the rise of the convict lease system.

    But we also had the rise of violent coups against duly elected governments. The peak of that is going to be 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, where an interracial Black and white government is actually violently overthrown. There were all these different versions of January 6 that really led to the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the 1880s.

    So, in a way, when we think about Juneteenth taking place against the backdrop of January 6 and legislation to deny the teaching of Black history and to deny the teaching of our history of racial injustice, they're all connected. They're all intimately linked.

    We are an American family collectively, even when there are partisan political and ideological divisions. And I think that Juneteenth allows us a context to explore these divisions, but also explore what unifies us as Americans.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is professor Peniel Joseph of the University of Texas at Austin.

    Professor Joseph, thank you for your time. Always good to have you here.

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Thank you. I enjoyed it.

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