Juneteenth should be a national holiday.
When I first heard about Juneteenth, I thought it was a nice little idea to commemorate a time in history. And I thought the notion that Juneteenth ought to be a national holiday was silly.
I don’t think it’s silly any longer.
The United States is a great country. We had a lot of advantages that helped us become the greatest power in the world, but that’s not what made us great. What made us great was the idea that each of us is free to make our way in the world.
The trouble with the United States is that we haven’t allowed all of our people to be free.
The death of George Floyd has sparked what may be a great awakening in the United States, the awakening of many white people to the fact that African Americans, although no longer slaves, still are not free. White Americans are coming to realize that it’s time to look our black American neighbors in the eye and say with heartfelt conviction, “Welcome. I honor and respect the humanity in you, and I will work with you so that, finally, you may enjoy with me all of the freedom that has made our country great.”
Juneteenth should be a national holiday that commemorates our collective decision to live together as free people, all of us, including African Americans. Juneteenth should celebrate our commitment to the freedom of all people. Juneteenth also will be white America’s reminder not to go to sleep on racism again.
What about July 4th? July 4th is Independence Day, the day we celebrate the American people becoming independent from the King of England and the Parliament. It’s not about personal freedom. The guys who wrote the Declaration of Independence weren’t interested in freedom for all people. They were interested in the lives of white male property owners. That’s not a knock on them; they were products of their times. Times have changed.
July 4th celebrates that Americans came together behind a revolutionary concept for government – individual freedom and representative democracy. Juneteenth can celebrate that we finally have come together to make freedom available to everyone.
Juneteenth would be the kickoff of a two-week, nationwide celebration. We would call it the “Freedom Weeks.” Fireworks on he 4th would mark the official end of Freedom Weeks. During Freedom Weeks, we would have parades and food festivals or commemorative events. We would welcome others into our homes and our neighborhoods. Instead of protest marches, imagine black parades in white neighborhoods with streets lined with cheering crowds. Instead of police and the National Guard, imagine white parades in black neighborhoods. It would be a time of national celebration, part county fair, part Mardi Gras.
During Freedom Weeks, we would acknowledge our shared humanity, our shared freedom, our commitment to liberty for all, both under our laws and in our dealings with each other. We would celebrate all we’ve created together and recommit to assuring that in our country all people are free. Freedom Weeks would be a time for Americans to celebrate our togetherness and our inter-connectedness. It would be a time for us to see and appreciate that we are, collectively, one people.
Juneteenth already has a great flag. Red, white and blue with a big star. When Congress makes Juneteenth a national holiday, it also should adopt the Juneteenth flag as some kind of official flag of the United States. It wouldn’t be an alternate to the American flag, but it would be a companion flag. The Juneteenth flag would denote the commitment of the United States to true freedom for all.
The Juneteenth flag could be flown in front of government buildings, along with the American flag and state flags. It could be carried along with the American flag in parades. It could be everywhere the American flag is.
When the color guard brings the American flag and the Juneteenth flag onto the field before a football game, would people stand or kneel? I don’t know, but it probably no longer would matter. Both actions would be signs of respect for the principles that the flags honor.
Juneteenth also solves the problem of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. There was a lot to promote MLK Day as a national holiday, but it hasn’t worked very well. It falls on a seemingly random day in January, at a time when a day off from work, although welcome, doesn’t feel all that necessary. It celebrates a person and has never made it, as it should have, as a celebration of an ideal. The holiday has increasingly been celebrated by black Americans but not all Americans. We should eliminate MLK Day (along with Columbus Day) and take the opportunity to make Juneteenth the celebration of our renewed, shared commitment to freedom for all.
But what about Dr. King? Easy. Let’s rebrand President’s Day as National Heroes Day, which would solve multiple problems. First and foremost, it means we no longer would have a holiday for white heroes and a separate holiday for a black hero. Separate isn’t equal. Let’s have a holiday for all of our heroes.
Second, increasingly we are troubled that our heroes weren’t perfect. By honoring American presidents together with Martin Luther King, Jr. (and Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony), we can acknowledge the gifts of each to our country, despite their human imperfections.
Racism is a terrible, pernicious habit that Americans have learned over 400 years. It’s bred into our society. It’s impossible to discover and eliminate every last racist habit we’ve developed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t combat racism.
We can combat racism by openly and affirmatively accepting, honoring, and celebrating the humanity in all of us. We can combat racism by committing to real freedom for all people.
Juneteenth and the Freedom Weeks will be our continuing public reminder of that humanity and our commitment. Juneteenth and the Freedom Weeks will be our reminder that we are building new habits to replace the old.