What a difference a year makes. In the case of today’s official observance, the reasons for the difference are shocking and sad. But they may be hopeful, too, and that depends on each and all of us.
Today is Juneteenth, the 19th of June, and a day recognized in all but three states to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the United States. Specifically, it commemorates that day in 1865 when slaves were declared free by federal order in Texas, bringing enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation to the last of the rebelling Civil War states.
Celebrations of the day’s anniversary first began in Texas but have spread across the country over the years. Although originally an important holiday mainly for the black community, it’s now recognized for its importance to all Americans and has come to be referred to as our second Independence Day.
Recognition in New Hampshire came late, however. There were some local observances, but state action did not occur until Gov. Chris Sununu’s then-newly formed Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion recommended as part of its June 1, 2018, preliminary report that the state take steps to better observe and celebrate its historically underrepresented communities, citing the Juneteenth commemoration as an example of a particularly important overlooked holiday.
The Legislature and the governor acted on the recommendation and a year ago today SB 174 was signed into law, requiring the governor each year to proclaim the day as Juneteenth and to call for “appropriate ceremonies and activities commemorating the abolition of slavery.”
Despite its importance, the legislation’s enactment last year generated little notice throughout the state. This Juneteenth, though, the holiday’s significance should be lost on no one, as the recent killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ahmaud Arbery in southern Georgia, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta and other victims of racial injustice serve as horrifying and sad reminders of how far we as a country are from delivering on our national promise of freedom, equality and equal opportunity for all, both in law and in fact.
Much of the immediate outrage at the killings, understandably and appropriately, has been centered on abusive and outrageous conduct by police officers in many major cities. This is not the case everywhere — witness the comments by some people of color at this week’s racial injustice forum who spoke well of encounters and treatment by Keene police — but everyone everywhere should continue to demand that it be addressed.
Initial responses from state and local leaders have been promising. At the state level, Sununu is fast-tracking a specially appointed panel to recommend, within 45 days, reforms to enhance transparency, accountability and community relations in law enforcement. And Keene and some other local police have made important gestures, from visibly joining protesters in expressing outrage at police brutality, to taking the first of hopefully more moves toward greater transparency in their operations by fully disclosing their use-of-force policies.
These steps are important, and they are hopeful. Yet this Juneteenth even more is needed, especially from whites, than just resolving to achieve criminal justice reform: a willingness to look inward and assess honestly our own commitment to tolerance and understanding of others and to acknowledge the prejudices each of us inevitably bears to some degree.
The racial-justice forum in Keene was a good start to a local conversation that, with determined follow-up, we hope will lead to greater community commitment and action. Yet listening to those speakers who told of experiencing instances of racial prejudice in Keene should give all of us pause — and not only out of the very valid concern that such instances are happening here, where so many of us not of a minority would like to believe we think the right thoughts and do the right things.
Over 40 years ago, the NAACP ran a newspaper advertisement in major newspapers with a large headline atop a picture of man with black skin asking, “What do you see when you look at this picture?” Underneath was this telling observation: “If your answer was ‘a Negro’ or ‘a black man,’ then you are a racist.” Harsh indeed, and perhaps even an overreach, depending on how strictly the term is defined. But certainly thought-provoking.
Juneteenth is a holiday born of the joyful celebration of the end of a horrible legacy of the country’s past. But it should be as much about the present and the future, and it gives us the opportunity to reexamine our own personal commitment to color-, ethnicity- and religion-equality and to embracing our diversity, both as we seek solutions to the recent spate of racial injustices and going forward.