Op-Ed: Turn The Celebration Of Juneteenth Into Action This Year

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

By Temi Amoye

June 19, 2020

It hasn’t been an easy year for Black Virginians. The coronavirus pandemic has devastated communities of color at disproportionate rates. A series of injustices have seen innocent Black Americans killed by law enforcement and fellow citizens alike. And our leaders, who might normally provide a guiding voice to a nation in chaos, are nowhere to be found — whether it’s President Trump hiding from protesters and egging on white supremacists or Richmond’s Mayor, Levar Stoney, who failed to control his own police force as officers gassed peaceful protesters early this month.

Against that backdrop, it feels difficult or even contradictory to celebrate Juneteenth this year. The anniversary of the liberation of the last American slaves on June 19, 1865 — over two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued — has traditionally been a joyous occasion for African Americans to celebrate freedom and honor our ancestors’ struggle. But today it seems a cruel reminder that after 150 years of “freedom,” Black Americans are still fighting for an equal voice, equal dignity, and equal justice. It’s clear that this year, Juneteenth must signify something more.

From combating voter suppression to dismantling the cultural symbols that fuel institutional racism, we must use this week to honor the true lessons of Juneteenth and recognize that struggle and progress go hand in hand. This week is an opportunity to lift up that struggle, highlight the centuries-long fight, and push our leaders to make good on Juneteenth’s broken promises. Virginia — for all its history of racial tension and hardship — has actually led the nation when it comes to pairing celebration with action.

The first step is finally tackling head-on the realities of voter suppression and its effect on minority communities. As the state director for NextGen Virginia, I lead a team of community organizers working to register young voters and boost youth turnout — a key component of last year’s progressive victories throughout the Commonwealth. But the pandemic has disrupted traditional voter registration efforts, resulting in an unprecedented dip in voter registrations. What’s more, many states have doubled down on laws that disenfranchise young, diverse voters by burdening them with a tangled morass of identification, registration, and polling place requirements.

Federal leaders and state legislatures should take a page out of Virginia’s book: implement same-day registration, loosen onerous voter ID requirements that discriminate against communities less likely to have a state-issued license, and make Election Day a holiday so people aren’t forced to choose between feeding their families and exercising their civic duty. It’s never been a more important year to do so as the threat of the pandemic risks dampening turnout even further.

The second step is undertaking bold, cultural changes — not just incremental ones — that prove leaders mean what they say when it comes to eliminating the vestiges of systemic racism. Virginia, again, led the way this month by committing to remove the confederate statues that have loomed over Richmond as reminders of our commonwealth’s racist past.

It isn’t easy to reconcile Virginia’s deep racial tensions with these periodic points of hope — we are, after all, the landing place for the first slaves and home to the former capital of the confederacy. But we have also produced pioneering Black leaders, elected the first Black governor, and taken meaningful steps to root out injustice and make our Commonwealth a fairer, more caring place for all.

That seeming contradiction is uniquely resonant with the lesson we must take away from Juneteenth this year — the inevitable possibility of progress. Virginia has yet again taken an important first step in calling for the creation of a paid state holiday on Juneteenth. But we also need a national day of observance so that it encourages this kind of introspection every year — not just the years where it happens to conveniently line up with proximate, tangible injustice. Above all, we must use this moment as an opportunity to remind our leaders to recognize the unfinished nature of our progress and the barriers left to clear.

This Juneteenth, we shouldn’t waste that reminder on mere celebration alone.

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