Yesterday President Biden signed the bill making Juneteenth a national holiday. Today it is being celebrated officially for the first time. Yes, today, June 18th. There are many, many things that can and should be said about this. But here’s one that I’ll focus on today.
Juneteenth will be the second federal holiday focused on the historical role and experience of African-Americans in the American Republic – the other being the celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. It is also the second federal holiday tied in some way to the American Civil War. But in this case it is only barely so. Memorial Day began as a commemoration of the dead of the Civil War, in both the North and the South. (The precise origins are disputed.) But Memorial Day is connected to the Civil War only as a point of origin for a tradition. The holiday explicitly honors the sacrifices of all who died in the service of the armed forces of the United States in every war and conflict. To the extent Memorial Day is tied to the Civil War it is focused on military sacrifice, which is in key respects apolitical. It honors military sacrifice in the service of the American Republic irrespective of the nature of the specific conflicts which made the sacrifice necessary.
In April I wrote about Ken Burns Civil War documentary which for all its innovation in the craft of documentary and substantive power is in many ways still captive to what we might call the commemorative, depoliticizing tradition of the Civil War – a war pitting brother against brother, a national tragedy, an irrepressible conflict. This aspect of the Burns’ Civil War is grounded in Shelby Foote’s central voice in this series. In many ways it is the Civil War of Memorial Day. It is not the same as the Lost Cause mythology of the South but it is another kind of sanitization of the Civil War.
On the contrary, Juneteenth is not only explicitly and uniquely tied to the Civil War. It is focused specifically on the causes, meaning and legacy of the Civil War: the liberation of African-Americans. And here we must note that the legacy of the Civil War is not only about the liberation of African-Americans. It is the story of slavery and the subsequent liberation of African-Americans that in critical respects gets the federal government into the rights and freedom business. It is the 14th Amendment especially that creates such a thing as a citizen of the United States with “privileges and immunities” specific to citizens of the United States and the contested kaleidoscope of rights around which most of our public debates about rights and freedoms turn.
So the creation of the Juneteenth national holiday not only puts the federal government on record placing slavery and liberation as the central facts of the Civil War but placing the liberation of African-Americans as the central engine of the liberationist impulse in American life.
It is a particular feature of American history that the country starts with a series of claims, values and universal principles, most of which are explicitly denied to the African-American population of the country. There is a way of teaching American history – one which many of us were raised on – which treats this fact as a sort of unfinished business of the American Revolution. The plan was all there at the outset. But given the particulars of history it couldn’t all be put into practice at the beginning. But that’s not quite right. Much of the liberationist content of the American experience is created by the struggle for African-American liberation, with its leveraging off of or pivoting against claims and principles packaged at the center of American civic culture. You see this clearly during the Civil War and Reconstruction and there is a similar dynamic during the second Reconstruction of the 1950s and 1960s with the plethora of rights movements that are keyed off or energized by the Civil Rights Movement: the struggle for African-American liberation is an engine charging liberationist impulses throughout American culture and politics.
Thurgood Marshall gave a speech late in life for the bicentennial of the US Constitution in which he argued that the original Constitution has no claim on our praise, glorification or allegiance. It is only with the the Civil War Amendments, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which amount to a second founding of the Republic, that have a claim on our allegiance and praise. “The government [the founders] devised,” Marshall said, “was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.”
You can agree or not with that claim. But Marshall’s point is clear: an America that has a claim on our praise and allegiance only comes into view through the tumult of African-American liberation and the Civil War that brought it about. The America of the Ante-Bellum era was, in Marshall’s words, “defective from the start.”
When I heard earlier in the week that the House had passed the Juneteenth bill on an overwhelming bipartisan basis I was stunned. Pleasantly stunned but stunned. People have told me that it’s an easy move for Republicans since it is fundamentally symbolic and doesn’t require any fundamental reordering of the law, reparations for past actions or reforms. All true. But the reality is that Republicans have little problem transforming uncontroversial or symbolic actions into grievance based controversy freak-outs. (Witness the spate of state laws outlawing the teaching of ‘critical race theory’ or the 1619 Project.) And in any case, to the extent it is symbolism it is a profound symbolism. The federal calendar has long served as a national text onto which the country writes a story about itself. Among many other things it does, the Juneteenth federal holiday puts the political Civil War back at the center of the national story and affirms the centrality of African-American liberation, albeit incomplete, to the American story.