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What is Juneteenth? This year’s significance

Juneteenth, an annual U.S. holiday on June 19, has taken on greater significance this year following nationwide protests over police brutality and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other African Americans.

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and 19th, also is known as Emancipation Day. It commemorates the day in 1865 after the Confederate states surrendered to end the Civil War when a Union general arrived in Texas to inform a group of enslaved African Americans of their freedom under President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In 1980, Texas officially declared it as a national holiday. It is now recognized in 46 other states and the District of Columbia, with only Hawaii, North and South Dakota remaining. Rules regarding holidays and days of observance vary from state to state, according to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which is campaigning for Juneteenth to reach federal holiday status. Although in part a celebration, the day is also observed solemnly to honour those who suffered during slavery in the United States with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans over 400 years ago.

Image credit Miami Times

Especially after the worldwide protests that are shaking entire societies and communities, Juneteenth concretely coincides this year with global protests against racial injustice sparked by the May 25 murder of Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis police custody. It also accompanies the coronavirus outbreak, which has disproportionately affected communities of colour.

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump, who had already been under fire for his response to both crises, drew further criticism for scheduling a Friday re-election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has since moved it to Saturday. Tulsa is an important and especially sensitive site where a white mob massacred African American residents in 1921. Community organizations nationwide devoted the day to discussions on policing and civil rights ahead of the November election.

People marked the 155th anniversary across the U.S. with festive meals and gatherings. While many cities have cancelled this year’s annual parades because of the pandemic, other groups have opted for virtual conferences or smaller events. In Washington, groups plan marches, protests and rallies. Amid the wave of racial justice protests, New York’s governor on Wednesday signed an executive order to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday for state employees. Some U.S. businesses have committed to a change of policies, including recognition of the holiday. Among the companies that have announced they will recognize Juneteenth as a paid company holiday are the National Football League, the New York Times, Twitter, and Square.

People raise their arms in solidarity as Sierra Davis Sanders and Ericka Still perform during a Juneteenth 2020 celebration outside the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla. Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and ensure all enslaved people be freed. Image credit AP Photo, Chris O'Meara

On the Juneteenth day, thousands marched through U.S. cities to observe the abolition of slavery more than a century and a half ago, an occasion freighted with special resonance this year amid America’s reckoning with its legacy of racism.

Capping nearly four weeks of protests and national soul-searching, demonstrators took to the streets from Atlanta to Oakland, California, blending the Juneteenth holiday with calls for racial justice.

With many formal Juneteenth events cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, activists instead organized a host of virtual observances online, as well as street marches and “car caravans” through several major cities.

While the gatherings were largely festive in mood, in keeping with Juneteenth traditions, they were also animated by demands for reforms to end brutality and discrimination in U.S. law enforcement.

Many organized labour joined the movement, with union dockworkers at 29 West Coast cargo ports marking the occasion by staging a one-day strike. Numerous major U.S. corporations declared June 19 a paid holiday this year, some for the first time.

Texas officially made Juneteenth a holiday in 1980, and 45 more states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit.

Four Democratic U.S. senators planned to introduce a bill to declare Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Protesters march towards the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on Friday, to mark Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the day in 1865 that enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas, learned they had been freed from bondage, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Image credit AP Photo, Manuel Balce Ceneta

“Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the US. And it should be recognized as a federal holiday,” Senator Tina Smith, one of four, posted on Twitter.

One focal point of Friday’s events was Atlanta, a centre of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, where about 1,000 people gathered at Centennial Olympic Park downtown for a peaceful march on the state capitol building.

Emotions were running high in Atlanta, where Rayshard Brooks, an African American, was fatally shot in the back by a white policeman in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant June 12, reigniting outrage still simmering from Floyd’s murder on May 25 in Minneapolis. The Atlanta policeman was dismissed from the department and charged with murder, although his arrest came more quickly than that of the officer ultimately charged with murder in the Floyd case.

Many Atlanta marchers carried signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” or “Get your knee off our necks,” and “I can’t breathe,” referring to Floyd’s dying words.

Marcher Antonio Jeremiah Parks, 27, of Atlanta, said the civil rights movement had not yet fulfilled its promises.

“Civil rights isn’t over,” said Parks, who is Black and works at a homeless shelter. “We still feel the pain of slavery. It’s not healed, and won’t be until we’re treated the same.”

Image credit Star and Stripes

Leia Shanks, 34, who is white and works in retail, said, “We need to stand against racism, and even though it’s 2020, what’s happening now isn’t right.”

In New York City, a few hundred protesters, most of them wearing masks against the spread of the coronavirus, gathered outside the Brooklyn Museum.

“African-American history is American history. Black history is American history. We need to be heard, we need people to see us. ... we need to be understood, we need to be seen as equal,” Maxwell Awosanya said as he handed out free snacks and water to the swelling crowd of protesters.

A diverse crowd, including parents with children in strollers and a large contingent of people on bicycles, marched in downtown Brooklyn, chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Say his name, George Floyd.”

In Texas, where Juneteenth originated, Lucy Bremond oversees what is believed to be the oldest public celebration of the occasion each year in Houston’s Emancipation Park. This year a gathering that typically draws some 6,000 people to the park was replaced with a virtual observance.

“There are a lot of people who did not even know Juneteenth existed until these past few weeks,” Bremond said.

Protestors hold pictures of George Floyd as they march during a Juneteenth rally in New York City. Image credit AFP via Getty Images

Some 1,500 protesters gathered at the Port of Oakland to join local dockworkers in a work stoppage. The crowd was due to march to downtown Oakland, with many of the dockworkers driving in a caravan along the way.

But much of the annual observance was taking take place on social media, with online lectures, discussion groups and virtual breakfasts - organized as a safe alternative for a minority community especially hard hit by the pandemic.

“We have been training our staff on how to use technology to present their events virtually and online,” said Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.


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