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Juneteenth gets its day

A Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum on

A Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum on June 19, 2020. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

When President Joe Biden signed Juneteenth National Independence Day into federal recognition as the nation’s 12th official holiday Thursday, it marked an important moment. As the nation, symbolically at least, recognizes one of its worst chapters, it also starts the process of reconciling our values with our troubled history.

This new recognition of Juneteenth is both the culmination of a long battle and a bolt of unexpected, even unsought progress. It is a moment to celebrate and a chance to see our history through a much-needed and different lens.

But it will be a hollow marker if we don't come to terms with our nation's past — and present — ills.

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger told enslaved Black people in Texas they were free. While President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was intended to free slaves in 1863, the order had little value in a state severed from Lincoln’s nation.

Juneteenth has since become the symbol of the various times slaves across the nation were freed. Black communities, particularly in the South, have celebrated the date for decades.

But it has taken far too long for Juneteenth to be recognized by the nation as a paid holiday by the nation, as it is by four states including New York, or as a date of observance, as is done by 44 more.

It's been way too long from 1994, when Rev. Ronald V. Meyers founded the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. Until recently, Myers sought only an observance, like Flag Day. Even Opal Lee, the 94-year-old former schoolteacher known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," who has walked through cities nationwide preaching the gospel of the day since she dedicated herself to Myers’ cause with a 1,400-mile trek to the nation’s capital five years ago, sought only a national observance until recently.

That push went nowhere, until George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last May, and the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck seared itself into our consciousness.

Floyd’s death and the protests and conflicts that followed have provoked a national introspection that led Juneteenth to gain a broad and suddenly unsurprising bipartisan support. Anyone who remembers the fierce 14-year battle over Martin Luther King’s national holiday should see this ease of passage as progress.

The new commemoration of Juneteenth comes in the wake of the nation's recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, when as many as 300 Black Americans were killed. These efforts will matter, particularly to our children and grandchildren, as we come to understand how our recording of history has failed to acknowledge some of its ugliest episodes.

Only then will Americans be able to celebrate the moment when the revolutionary rights the Fourth of July promised began to become accessible to all.

Editorials are written by members of the editorial board, a group of opinion journalists whose views on the issues of the day reflect the longstanding values of Newsday.