On the meaning of Juneteenth

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

Last year, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, making a holiday that originated in Galveston in 1866 into a federal observance. The holiday is called Emancipation Day in Texas, because it marks the end of legal bondage of black people in the last state in the union with institutional slavery. Texas was not the only place where slavery continued after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It just held on the longest. Slaves were not emancipated in Texas because Texans realized they should be treated as equals- they were emancipated because their owners lost a war.

When we see the gaping discrepancies between Texans of color and white Texans in areas including (but not limited to) health and wellness, educational achievement, employment opportunities, home ownership, income, and inherited wealth, it is clear that manumission does not demand respect for the humanity and dignity of all people. Likewise, making Juneteenth a federal holiday does not compel our legislatures to change policies that continue to enable a small minority of people to thrive at the expense of the majority. Juneteenth is not only a chance to celebrate the emancipated that took place on a June day in 1865. It is a reminder that it is up to every one of us to make that freedom mean something, every day, by resisting the human inclination to be slaves and to enslave.

At the Passover seder, Jews recite these words, “In every generation a person must see themselves as if they themselves had gone forth out of Egypt.” We may not have been a slave or a slaveowner in this country before emancipation. But that does not mean we are absolved from responsibility for the kind of slavery that persists wherever we are, in every age.

As President Biden said in his remarks last year, “…the promise of equality is not going to be fulfilled until… it becomes real in our schools and on our Main Streets and in our neighborhoods — our healthcare system and ensuring that equity is at the heart of our fight against the pandemic; in the water that comes out of our faucets and the air that we breathe in our communities; in our justice system — so that we can fulfill the promise of America for all people. All of our people….We can’t rest until the promise of equality is fulfilled for every one of us in every corner of this nation. That, to me, is the meaning of Juneteenth. That’s what it’s about.”