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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

What kind of country do we want?

Advocates for criminal justice reform attend a rally

Advocates for criminal justice reform attend a rally for Juneteenth, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, in Manhattan Tuesday. Credit: Abigail Weinberg

This week, Americans have been transfixed by images of small children snatched from their parents at the nation’s Southern border. We’ve been horrified by audio recordings of such children begging for their mothers and fathers as families trying to come into the United States without permission were stopped, separated and confined.

“This is not who we are as a country,” we keep telling each other, on television and on the floor of Congress and around the dinner table. We believe such actions don’t represent what made this country great — and they don’t, when it has been great.

But such actions do represent what made this country awful, when it has been awful.

We do not like to remember this nation’s history of dehumanizing and objectifying groups of people so that our brains and hearts will not balk when we abuse them.

This week, for another year, Juneteenth came and went without the day getting the national recognition it deserves and the attention it demands. This week, for another year, most people did not pause to notice and discuss and come to terms with the reality and legacy of slavery.

Juneteenth, on June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger announced to the slaves of Texas that they were free. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially freed the slaves of Texas on Jan. 1, 1863, but that freedom was not realized for years.

Over the years since, Juneteenth has been seized upon as the day to celebrate all the various days slaves across the nation first became free. It is recognized as a state holiday or an official date of observance by 45 states, but it is not in the code of the federal government as a national day of observance.

Wright Brothers Day is. Carl Garner Federal Lands Cleanup Day is. Flag Day is, and Loyalty Day and Leif Erikson Day. But not Juneteenth.

“We are not asking for a federal holiday, that’s a big misunderstanding a lot of people have,” the Rev. Ronald V. Meyers, chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, said in an interview. Meyers has fought to get Juneteenth recognized as a national day of observance since 1994, a process that must start in the Senate, then go to the House. He says no one is on the record as being against it, and annual statements of recognition are easily affirmed in the Senate. But then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s attempt to make it a permanent observance failed in 2012, and no significant attempt has been made since.

“If we’re going to have real healing in America, people need to understand we were enslaved on Independence Day,” Meyers said. “For the first 88 years the Fourth of July was celebrated in the United States, we were not free.”

The United States allowed slave owners to systematically snatch black children from parents and sell them. The U.S. government forcibly took American Indian children from their families until the 1960s, placing them in government-run boarding schools where they were stripped of their culture and reshaped into “Americans.”

To see Juneteenth on our calendars each year, to discuss it and think about it, might be a very powerful thing. We are not the kind of country where children are snatched from their parents when we take the necessary steps, in the voting booths and in our lives, to ensure we are not that kind of country.

But when we get complacent about the fact that we can be that kind of country, horrible things sometimes happen.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.