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People participate in a march in Brooklyn for both Black Lives Matter and to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth on June 19, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As Congress Approves Juneteenth Bill, Advocates Say 'We Must Not Stop Here'

"Black liberation in its totality must be prioritized," stressed Rep. Cori Bush.

Brett Wilkins

As legislation to designate Juneteenth a federal holiday breezed through the U.S. Congress this week and was signed into law by President Joe Biden Thursday afternoon, racial justice advocates stressed the imperative for meaningful policies and actions to address systemic racism and inequality that go beyond what some called performative gestures.

"Many of the senators who voted for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday regularly vote to impede civil rights for Black Americans."
—Dr. Tarika Barrett

Several congressional lawmakers took the occasion to both welcome the new holiday and speak to the need to address what author and activist Bill Fletcher Jr. has called "America's incomplete emancipation."

Speaking on the House floor Thursday, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.)  expressed his "great excitement and joy" over the designation of Juneteenth—which celebrates the day in 1865 when Black people in Texas learned they were no longer slaves, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—as a national holiday.

"But... we must not stop here. We must continue to go forward to fight for racial justice," he said, citing "housing discrimination and segregation, lack of access to healthcare, and wealth inequality."

"We must... do much more," asserted Bowman, who supports measures—including Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and the For the People Act—that progressive campaigners argue will uplift tens of millions of Americans, especially people of color adversely affected by centuries of systemic injustice and inequality.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) tweeted that "it's long past time for America to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday."

"But we can't just call this a win and move on," she added. "Congress needs to act on voting rights, police violence, poverty, environmental justice, and much more to tackle systemic racism in America."

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) tweeted, "As we take this time to acknowledge Juneteenth, I pray that we do not [lose] track of the fact that we have so much more work to do to ensure fairness, opportunity, and equality."

Racial justice advocates went even further in their calls for equity, with Black Lives Matter tweeting, "We won't be bamboozled by political theater."

Unfit Christian founder D. Danyelle Thomas called the new holiday "yet another tokenized victory to point to in the delusion of a post-racial society." 

"The Senate unanimously passing Juneteenth as a federal holiday—and the Biden [administration's] championing of the cause—while actively obstructing raising minimum wages, student debt forgiveness, and gun reform is a reminder that performative liberation/resistance won't do a damn thing," she asserted.

In a syndicated opinion piece published on Thursday, National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) chief of programs and strategic development Sabrina Terry and Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, chief of membership, policy, and equity at NCRC and an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, wrote that "Juneteenth reminds us to be critical of how progress is measured."

"In the last month alone, we had two national remembrances of racial injustice: the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd and the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre," noted Terry and Asante-Muhammad. "Floyd's murderer, police officer Derek Chauvin, was found guilty this year. And this spring, President Biden became the first president to visit Tulsa and commemorate the massacre."

"Both events have been celebrated as turning points in popular American public opinion toward racial justice, yet there is still little evidence of meaningful systemic reforms," the authors wrote. "A year after Floyd's murder, Congress still hasn't passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. And the few remaining survivors of the Tulsa massacre have yet to receive reparations from their federal, state, or local governments."

Terry and Asante-Muhammad continued:

A year since the nation's 'racial reckoning' following the death of George Floyd, and 100 years since the massacre in Tulsa, our nation has still failed to even promise the type of repair—much less deliver the investments necessary—to bridge the centuries-old racial inequality that's maintained through economic inequality. But that doesn't mean we can't.

As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, the promise of freedom alone isn't enough to move us forward. Instead, we need to celebrate it every year with sustained action and investment to repair the inequality that even a general and his troops 150 years ago were not able to deliver.

"History... shows that without a sustained deployment of federal resources, the promise of Black freedom and opportunity were quickly dashed against the rocks of racially concentrated power and wealth, leaving African Americans vulnerable in a racially segregated society," they added. "And today, like then, there's  huge division among states when it comes to racial justice."

Indeed, observers noted the irony of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday at the same time that numerous states including Texas and Oklahoma are banning or whitewashing the teaching of the history behind events like Juneteenth and the Tulsa Massacre.

"Imagine making Juneteenth a federal holiday when laws are being enacted all over the country that will prevent people from being taught why it's a holiday," tweeted Monique Judge, news editor at The Root.

Screenwriter Kashana Cauley quipped, "This'll be fun to teach in the anti-critical race theory states: 'So we're all getting this day off because absolutely no one did anything wrong.'"

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