Juneteenth is recognized as a federal holiday. What does that mean for this Fourth of July?
This July Fourth, America will celebrate 245 years of independence from British rule. President Joe Biden’s signed into law Juneteenth as a federal holiday forces Americans to take a sterner look at what the holiday means.
More than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and two months after the end of the Civil Wa on April 9th, 1865, enslaved African Americans in Texas found out they were free on June 19, 1865, called Juneteenth. It’s also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass called America out on its hypocrisy in his speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In it, Douglass stated that a country in the throes of slavery has to close its gaping gap between the ideals of the United States and its dastardly deeds toward people of color. His words still resonate.
“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence. … I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. …This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
African Americans have fought in every war defending this country, starting with the American Revolution in a segregated military until 1948. Crispus Attucks, a brother of African and Native American ancestry from Framingham, was the first martyr for America’s independence in the American Revolution. Prince Estabrook, an enslaved man from Lexington and black Minuteman, was wounded in the first battle of the American Revolution.
The fight for black independence was ongoing during the American Revolution, too. Enslaved Africans who fought for the British, called Black Loyalists, were ensured their freedom. Enslaved Africans who fought against the British were only reluctantly acknowledged as Black Patriots, even today in celebrating July Fourth.
Black patriotism is exhibited not only on the battlefields of America’s wars, but in America’s streets and sports arenas.
For example, in 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to protest police brutality against Black Americans and other forms of social injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem. His action was seen as polarizing, un-American and unpatriotic. When patriotism is narrowly defined, though, it can only be accepted and exhibited within the constraints of its own intolerance.
Case in point: Former President Donald Trump, in particular, stoked the flames of Kaepernick’s expression of protest. Trump publicly criticized Kaepernick and allies who took a knee during the national anthem as being “S.O.Bs” who were anti-the American flag, anti-cops and anti-military. To Kaepernick’s defense, former attorney general Eric Holder tweeted with a photo of one of the first images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. down on his left knee in Selma, Alabama, on Feb. 1, 1965. Holder tweeted that “Taking a knee is not without precedent, Mr. President. Those who dared to protest have helped bring positive change.” MLK said in his Montgomery Bus Boycott speech on Dec. 5, 1955, “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”
The controversy of taking a knee during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America’s beloved national anthem, brought heightened attention to its racist history. Francis Scott Key, who penned the lyrics, supported slavery and came from an influential plantation family in Maryland. The song’s third verse, no longer sung after the Civil War, included the lyrics, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
In depicting the mangling grip of white supremacist domestic terrorism on black lives, Malcolm X in 1965 said, “That’s not a chip on my shoulder. That’s your foot on my neck.” Last year, the world got to see a 9 minutes and 29 seconds video of former Minnesota Police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd with his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd handcuffed, lying face down, saying, “I can’t breathe went limp. Last week, Chauvin was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison. The ongoing struggle, however, against police brutality persists.
This Fourth of July, people will once again sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” or recite the Pledge of Allegiance or reenact the Continental Congress of 1776 or watch reproductions of the rockets’ red glare from “bombs bursting in air.” America’ will showcase her indomitable spirit of bravery and patriotism as – vaxxed or non-vaxxed – citizens during this ongoing pandemic.
But this Fourth will be different. Juneteenth can no longer stand in the shadows of America’s celebration of independence, but highlights how it is inextricably linked to America’s core values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.
The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.