Juneteenth: A Bittersweet Celebration Commentary
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Juneteenth: A Bittersweet Celebration
Edited by: JURIST Staff

Today the United States celebrates Juneteenth, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.  Juneteenth is the anniversary of the day in 1865 on which Union Major General Gordon Granger informed 200,000 enslaved people in Texas that they were free by executive decree.  Juneteenth was a day of joy and celebration, and we celebrate it as the day when all enslaved people in our country were finally freed.  However, it is also a bittersweet day because under U.S. law, those people were already free for months, if not years, before General Granger’s proclamation, but they did not even know.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all enslaved people in Confederate states (including the state of Texas) to be free, was effective on January 1, 1863 – two and half years before Juneteenth.  Moreover, Congress had approved the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, in January 1865 (though the Thirteenth Amendment was not ratified until December of that year).  Celebrating Juneteenth reminds us that laws are meaningless unless they are enforced.  The Emancipation Proclamation inspired enslaved people and created an incentive for them to rebel or escape from slavery, but the proclamation itself did not free any enslaved people.

However, the Emancipation Proclamation did not have any effect until the Union Army enforced it with their military advances in confederate states – even after the end of the war.  The Civil War had ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.  Even after Lee’s surrender, confederate troops in Texas continued to fight for another month.  Union troops did not arrive en masse in Texas until June, enabling General Granger to issue his proclamation.

When we celebrate Juneteenth, we must remember that formerly enslaved people were essential to the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation – and to the abolition of slavery.  As Union troops advanced, formerly enslaved people advanced across Union lines and volunteered for the Union Army.  Some of those Union soldiers liberated members of their own families.  Their sacrifices were essential to the Union victory, and members of the Reconstruction Congress referred to those sacrifices when enacting measures enforcing the rights of formerly enslaved people during the Reconstruction Era – including the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Freedman’s Bureau Acts, and statutes enforcing those Amendments.

It is perhaps in part because of the irony of Juneteenth that African Americans have held the holiday so dearly, celebrating Juneteenth in community gatherings throughout the country since 1865.  However, until recently, most Americans did not know about Juneteenth.  In 2016, Fort Worth, Texas resident and activist Opel Lee began a campaign to advocate for Juneteenth to be a national holiday.  Starting at age 89, Lee walked all the way from Fort Worth to Washington, DC to raise awareness about Juneteenth.  Lee walked two and half miles at a time, to commemorate the two and a half years that enslaved people in Texas waited to learn about their emancipation.  In 2020, millions of activists joined Lee as they marched in protest systemic racism in the United States after the death of George Floyd and demanded recognition and accountability.  In 2021, Congress responded to Lee’s campaign and the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement and created this new federal holiday.

Thus, when we celebrate Juneteenth, we celebrate not only the emancipation of enslaved people – but also their resilience, strength, and activism – and that of their descendants and allies in the United States.

Rebecca Zietlow is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Charles W. Fornoff Professor of Law and Values, and a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Toledo College of Law. Her previous work includes The Forgotten Emancipator: James Mitchell Ashley and the Ideological Origins of Reconstruction (Cambridge University Press 2017) and Beyond Equality: Congress, the Constitution, and the Protection of Individual Rights (NYU Press 2006).

Suggested citation: Rebecca Zietlow, Juneteenth: A Bittersweet Celebration, JURIST – Academic Commentary, June 19, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/06/juneteenth.

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