June 19, 2011
June 19th, celebrated as a commemoration of the end of chattel slavery in the United States, is not the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Lincoln on January 1, 1863, but the date that it was read aloud in Texas more than two years later accompanied by an announcement of the end of the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment would be adopted by the Reconstruction Congress later that year, in December 1865.
On that day, a Union regiment led by Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas. The Granger regiment not only reported the two-month-old news that the Civil War had ended with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, but also enforced (nearly two and a half years after the fact) the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. . . . Juneteenth is, as it were, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday without the tragedy.
As an epochal event, Juneteenth managed rather remarkably to arrive both too late and too early. The two-month delay in reporting the news of the Confederacy's defeat and the two-year delay in the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation would prove to be trivial in comparison with the glacial pace of legal reform after the Civil War. The nominal end of slavery foreshadowed the bitter disappointment of Reconstruction and the strange career of Jim Crow. A full lifetime after the end of Reconstruction, William Faulkner described all too perfectly the grip of slavery's dead hand: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” Most of the slaves emancipated in 1865 never enjoyed some of the simplest and most essential civil rights. Meaningful protection of the right to vote without regard to race or color, to name merely one example, would wait more than a century. Exactly 100 years and 48 days elapsed between Juneteenth and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To celebrate Juneteenth, in other words, is to acknowledge unfinished business. Neither Union victory in the Civil War nor Reconstruction came close to discharging America's debt to its black citizens. Indeed, Reconstruction effectively enabled the South to win the Civil War. Yet Juneteenth remains worth remembering and celebrating. Rail as we might (and should) against the persistence of racism in America, the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery define much of what is good and heroic in American history. To borrow a key word from the civil rights jurisprudence of Chief Justice Earl Warren, a negotiated peace with the Confederacy would have been “unthinkable.” At a certain level of abstraction, quibbling over the precise terms of either victory seems downright ungrateful.
Juneteenth acknowledges a fundamental truth: no matter how long it is delayed, and no matter how imperfectly it is implemented, emancipation beats the pants off enslavement. What separates Juneteenth from other commemorations of wartime victory is its sense of irony and its humility. Because of these traits, and not in spite of them, Juneteenth's celebrants understand the crucial point. However awkwardly accomplished, the outlawing of slavery is a monumental achievement worth commemorating as long as the Republic endures.
In his article Apology Lite: Truths, Doubts, and Reconciliations in the Senate's Guarded Apology for Slavery, 42 Connecticut Law Review CONNtemplations 1 (2009), available on ssrn, LawProf Kaimipono David Wegner argues that the United States Senate should "formally commemorate Juneteenth" to help show the sincerity of its apology for slavery and further restorative justice goals including reparations.
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