EDITORIAL: Make Juneteenth a national holiday

Day marking the end of the Civil War and slavery could be opportunity to educate, rededicate efforts to end racism
Juneteenth celebrated in Schenectady in 2018
Juneteenth celebrated in Schenectady in 2018

It’s a holiday that’s 155 years overdue.

In the wake of national protests against racial discrimination and police brutality toward minorities — and in the wave of national awareness of symbols that glorify our nation’s dark history of discrimination — government officials have discovered the day marking the end of slavery in America and are using it to demonstrate our newfound commitment to ending racial injustice in our country.

June 19, or “Juneteenth,” marks the day in 1865 when a Union Army general in Galveston, Texas, read federal orders announcing the end of the Civil War and declaring that all previously enslaved people were free.

While the announcement represented the official end to slavery in America, it fostered in an additional 15 decades of discrimination and violence against blacks in our country.

It’s long overdue that Juneteenth be made a national holiday, on the level of other national holidays, where it can be used as an annual opportunity to promote tolerance and denounce discrimination.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo used his executive order powers to declare Friday a holiday for state workers. Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan is among the local government officials in New York giving public employees a day off to commemorate the day. And it’s already a holiday in several other states.

But the day is too important, and the symbolism too deep, to restrict the commemorations to sporadic states and municipalities.

Given the upheaval of the last few weeks following the death of George Floyd, this is the perfect time for such a declaration.

Of course, being practical, there are logistics that need to be worked out, some that actually work in favor of a new mid-June holiday.

In the pre- and post-covid era, the school year would be ending right around now in New York and many states. Juneteenth could be a final, emphatic history and civics lesson with which to send school children off to summer vacation.

Lawmakers also will have to work out the details of giving workers an additional paid day off.

Paid holidays aren’t free to employers or taxpayers. And with more than 600,000 state and local government employees in New York, even one additional day off is a big financial hit. Perhaps we need to shed an existing holiday, perhaps Columbus Day, which has come to symbolize the exact opposite of what Juneteenth has come to mean.

Declaring Juneteenth a national holiday would give Americans an opportunity each year to re-educate themselves about the struggles faced by blacks and other targets of discrimination, and it would give us all a chance to rededicate ourselves to ending racism and oppression once and for all.

Such an opportunity is 155 years overdue.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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