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United States: what you need to know about “Juneteenth”, the date of the commemoration of the end of slavery, which has become a public holiday at the federal level

Recognition of this day at the national level is a symbol in the fight against racial inequalities that persist in the United States. 

African Americans celebrated June 19, 2021 an exceptional Juneteenth , anniversary of the end of slavery in the United States. This date is now among the 11 national holidays, a year after the death of George Floyd, assassinated on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis by a white policeman during his arrest, and a century after the massacre of African Americans in Tulsa in Arizona. On June 1, 1921, hundreds of white protesters looted and burned a black neighborhood called Black Wall Street, an example of economic success. The violence had left up to 300 dead, according to historians. Here are some elements to understand the symbolism of  Juneteenth .

The origins

A contraction of the words “June” and “19” in English, this date commemorates the day the last slaves of Galveston, an island in Texas, learned they were free. On June 19, 1865, the Union army, victorious in the Civil War (1861-1865), announced the news, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Juneteenth  has remained as the milestone date for the emancipation of African Americans.

Now a holiday for federal government employees deemed non-essential, Juneteenth  was already a holiday in most of the American states where it was celebrated, including Texas. Several large companies such as Twitter, Nike or Lyft have made it a non-working day for their employees after the death of GeorgeFloyd who has redoubled calls in this direction.

A national holiday established in record time

Along with Vice President Kamala Harris, US President Joe Biden enacted a law on June 17 making June 19 a national holiday, 156 years after its establishment. “Juneteenth symbolizes both the long and difficult night of slavery and submission, and the promise of a better day ,” he said.

Slavery was abolished in December 1865 after nearly 250 years of existence, with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. By making Juneteenth the 11th federal holiday, “all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history, celebrate progress and see the distance traveled,” said Joe Biden who recalled that slavery is a  “moral stain” and “America’s original sin”.

(Ms Opal Lee traveled for miles – literally and figuratively – to bring attention to Juneteenth . On Thursday Ms Lee went to the White House to participate in the signing of the President’s Bill to Juneteenth on a federal holiday. Watch her comment on her experiences here).

The ceremony, marked by emotion, is the result of a succession of decisions taken with a speed and a consensus rare in American political life. Two days earlier, on June 15, a Republican senator who had opposed the creation of this holiday for a year, for financial reasons, raised his objections. Shortly after, the text was adopted unanimously. From the 16th, the proclamation was approved by an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives. In the process, the White House announces that Joe Biden will promulgate it on June 17.

Skepticism reigns then in the United States: June 19 falling on a Saturday, this nonworking day should, according to the rules, be moved to Friday but how to go so quickly? The human resources department of the hundreds of thousands of federal employees decides on Thursday, June 17: federal government employees deemed non-essential will be entitled to a day off the next day.

Taken aback on the 18th like some Americans, Wall Street did not have time to adapt: ​​the traditional bell rang well on Friday morning.

Most popular with the George Floyd case 

His murder sparked a grassroots movement against racism and police brutality against African Americans in the United States and beyond. The mobilization helped, among other things, to considerably strengthen the visibility of Juneteenth , which many Americans, including African Americans, did not know existed two years ago. A poll  published on June 15, 2021 by the Gallup Institute revealed that 28% of Americans “knew nothing” about this commemorative day. 

Festive occasion since 1866, Juneteenth has been even more so this year. The day was widely celebrated on the Texan island of Galveston, considered the symbolic place of Juneteenth , Washington, where several hundred people celebrated the anniversary by dancing on the avenue leading to the White House, renamed Black Lives Matter. Plaza from the monster anti-racist protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.  

When Trump was trying to ride the “Juneteenth” wave 

To woo the African-American electorate during the 2020 presidential campaign, Donald Trump dangled the idea of ​​making Juneteenth  a national holiday during a campaign rally in Atlanta, Georgia on September 25, 2020 He will then give no explanation on how to implement his project, the Congress being the only one to have this prerogative. 

A few weeks earlier, the former US president had to postpone a campaign meeting scheduled for that date. Faced with the controversy, he said: “I did something right: I made Juneteenth very famous.”  Known for his boastfulness, the real estate mogul actually touched on a real topic. 

Compensation for African Americans 

For Farah Louis, a black city councilor in New York City, the proclamation of Juneteenth as a public holiday and the momentum given by the post-Floyd movement offers “an opportunity” for the black community. “You have to beat the iron while it is hot,” she said, referring in particular to the debate on “reparations” , the compensation of African Americans for the devastation caused by slavery. On June 18, the mayors of 11 American cities, including Los Angeles and Denver, pledged to pay, as such, compensation to representatives of the black community, urging the national government and Congress to imitate them.

Since the death of George Floyd, America has looked back on its slavery past, and long-standing calls to compensate black people for wrongs suffered throughout history have taken on new strength. Joe Biden supports legislation to create a commission of experts to make proposals on compensation for the descendants of some four million Africans forcibly brought to the United States between 1619 and 1865.

Victorious step in a long battle against racial inequalities 

“It’s a little surreal to celebrate (Juneteenth) as we fight nationwide attacks” on minority suffrage, tweeted Sharif Street, a local black senator from Pennsylvania. Between January and May 2021, 14 US states, including Georgia and Florida, passed laws to restrict voting opportunities, measures interpreted as aimed at reducing the voting influence of minorities, especially the black community. A bill to guarantee wide access to the vote is currently under discussion in the Senate, but its fate seems very uncertain because many elected Republicans are opposed to it.

Terrence Floyd, George’s brother Floyd, who lives in New York, recently created organization We Are Floyd ( We Floyd )  “for the continuous change” , he told AFP. The black minority, which represents 13% of the American population, still suffers from discrimination in matters of employment, housing and health, despite the advances in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.

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