Juneteenth Is A Federal Holiday…We’ve Been Here Before (OpEd)

by Donya Williams

Well, it’s done. Juneteenth has been made an official holiday by President Joe Biden. The last federal holiday created was Martin Luther King Day in 1983 by then-President Ronald Reagan. It, too, was a holiday for black people. As a genealogist who always finds history repeating itself, it makes you wonder what was going on in the 80s when the Martin Luther King Day law was passed.

The 1980s was a breakout time in Politics for African Americans. The California Assembly selected its first Black Speaker of the State Legislature, Willie Brown, Jr. Harold Washington, W. Wilson Goode, David Dinkins, and Norman Rice were the first African Americans elected as Mayors to their prospective cities. At the same time, Douglas Wilder was the first African American to be elected Governor of Virginia. Jesse Jackson ran not once but twice for the highest office in the land. Although he didn’t win the Democratic Nomination in 1984 and 1988, his work was the pre-cursor for Obama to become President two decades later.

We also made significant accomplishments in science, literature, entertainment, and sports. The last time black Americans had achievements like this was during the Reconstruction Era. Things began to happen in our communities that would significantly change the upward swing of black people. It’s safe to say that many white Americans were not too happy about black people’s progress and successes. So laws were created and passed with the sole purpose of stunting the growth and achievements of African Americans. Eventually, “race riots” broke out – and our growth as a people slowed…and then snuffed out. A more positive bloom began to emerge from the gloom in the 1980s.

This history made me wonder, with the Black Excellence that happened in the 1980s, what happened between then and now? What began to transpire to create the same toxic level of damage that ended the Reconstruction Era – and set the stage for decades of turmoil for African Americans?

  • In May 1980, a “riot” happened in Liberty City, FL, due to a police officer’s acquittal for killing an unarmed black man. The Miami Riot was considered the worst riot in U.S. History since the Detroit Riots in 1967.
  • In 1982, Reverend Benjamin Chavis started a national campaign against Environmental Racism. He spearheaded a report called “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites.”
  • In 1984, Bernard Goetz, also known as the Subway Vigilante, shot and seriously wounded four black teenagers on a New York City subway car. He thought they had screwdrivers and were going to rob him for $5. He was acquitted of attempted murder but found guilty of possessing an illegal weapon. He served 250 days in jail.
  • The crack cocaine epidemic had a devastating effect on the Black Community in the very early 80s.
  • Between 1984 and 1989, the homicide rate for black males aged 14 to 17 more than doubled, and the homicide rate for black males aged 18 to 24 increased nearly as much.
  • Eleven members of the Black liberation and back-to-nature group MOVE died during a standoff with police in West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985. John Africa, the founder of MOVE, was killed. Five other adults and five children died too. Sixty-five homes were destroyed after a police helicopter dropped an incendiary device, causing an out-of-control fire in surrounding houses.

Does any of this sound familiar? Am I the only one who feels Juneteenth was created to make black people feel accomplished? Why is it that every time there is a “rough time” in America, especially when the focus of that roughness is people of color, there is something given to appease or satisfy? This dynamic, unfortunately, is an all too familiar pattern in U.S. History. From George Floyd to the Flint water issue, histories like the six points listed above have happened throughout Black American History, stretching back to colonial times.

Listen, I am happy about this new holiday. I really am. However, I want to tell Congress not to lose focus on the work that is truly needed. Don’t forget about the Emmanuel Baptist Church Massacre, the relentless rise (once again) of black men and women dying at the hands of police officers, and racist white people (including those in Congress) with little-to-no consequences. Don’t forget how anti-hate laws for Asian Americans can be passed in less than a year, while black Americans have been fighting for similar protections under the law since the Reconstruction Era.  

We have shone the brightest light on black communities’ problems in the United States too many times down the generations. We are appeased with things like a national holiday. As a genealogical researcher, I am a 2times, 3times, and up to 6times great-granddaughter of enslaved ancestors. I am happy to celebrate June 19th as an honorary day of freedom for all who were enslaved. But don’t forget their fight had only just begun. They didn’t rest from the fight until we received what we have today. 

 We shouldn’t rest until our children and grandchildren receive more.


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