As I noted below, my first reaction to the news that Juneteenth was becoming a federal holiday was shock. Given all the rightwing freak-outs we’ve seen about BLM, CRT, the 1619 Project and all the rest I was shocked, albeit very pleasantly, by the fact that congressional Republicans voted overwhelmingly in favor of making the day a federal holiday. In his new newsletter (The Uprising), TPM Alum Hunter Walker looks at the fourteen members of the House who voted against the holiday and their various excuses for doing so. There he notes right wing activist Charlie Kirk tweeting that Juneteenth is a kind of effort to cancel July 4th.
“America only has one Independence Day and it’s on July 4th, 1776. If you’re a conservative who is okay with the ‘Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,’ you’re not paying attention to what the left is truly trying to accomplish.”
This is the kind of pumped up grievance talk that I expected from Republicans. But I wanted to focus on the fact that there’s an element of truth in what Kirk is saying. No, July 4th isn’t being ‘canceled’. But as I argued earlier, part of the historical significance of making Juneteenth a federal holiday is that it puts the nation on record that the Civil War was about slavery and black liberation and that African-American liberation is at the center of the American story. Thurgood Marshall went as far as to say that the original Constitution was “defective from the start.”
I go into this argument further in this morning’s post. But the claim embedded in Kirk’s assertion is that July 4th – inclusive of the 1787 constitution – is the complete package. National commemoration, our patriotic reference points, whatever principles or values we put at the center of the national story are all there. In this view of history emancipation was little more than a post-dated check written in the 1770s and cashed in the 1860s. But is not the whole story. Or perhaps better to say there is a very different version of the story in which the Civil War and the political revolution it brings about constitutes a Second American Revolution which is actually the well spring of the liberationist rights-based America that many of us honor. (Again, I go into more depth on this in this morning’s post.)
The truth is there’s a lot of commemoration to go around. July 4th and the American Revolution are central parts of the American story. But making Juneteenth a national holiday does put the nation on record that it’s not the whole story. Indeed it may not even be the most important part of it. That’s real. And Kirk is on to something to note it. There are very straightforward and political reasons for wanting to fence off the American story to something that happens between 1776 and 1787, or a script which is contained in those years and which we continue to read from. The Juneteenth holiday says something different. And to many of us that’s a good thing.